Do all mammals take the same time to urinate? Where’s the most painful place on the body to be stung by a bee? Does a chicken walk like a dinosaur if you stick a fake tail on it?
Point of view
"Sometimes these crazy things provide a lot of insight"
The researchers who have found the answers to these burning questions have been rewarded with an Ig Nobel prize, a parody of the Nobel award designed to celebrate science “that makes you laugh, then think.”
The 25th edition of the annual Igs was held at Harvard University on Thursday, organised by the humoristic science magazine Annals of Improbable Research.
A team from the Georgia Institute of Technology led by Patricia Yang took home the Ig Nobel for Physics for their efforts in establishing that all mammals weighing over 3 kilos take around the same time – 21 seconds – to urinate. Smaller mammals like rats and mice can be much more efficient and get the job done in less than one second. While such work may, on the surface, seem completely pointless, it has been published by the American National Academy of Sciences and could help research into urinary problems or water storage. It is also excellent trivia to wow guests at dinner parties.
There were two joint winners in the Physiology and Entomology category for separate but related work on insect stings. Justin Schmidt of the Southwest Biological Institute in the US was honoured for devising the Schmidt Pain Index of Insect Stings.
By letting himself be stung by a range of bugs, Schmidt developed a scale ranging from 1 to 4. A Sweat Bee for example provides a low-pain, level 1 sting that is “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. As if a tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” Steer clear of Tarantula Hawk Spider Wasps though as they pack a level 4 punch that lasts just three minutes but is described by Schmidt as “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.”
Schmidt’s co-recipient for sting research was Michael Smith of Cornell University, who allowed bees to sting 25 parts of his body over a 38-day period. His conclusion? The most painful places to be stung are the penis shaft, the nostril and the upper lip.
Weird science is not just an American thing of course; Ig laureates come from all over the globe. The University of Chile’s Dr Rodrigo Vasquez won the biology prize for his work sticking artificial tails on chickens’ backsides. His most revolutionary finding was that by doing so, the chickens walk in the same way as bipedal dinosaurs like the T-Rex, or at least the same way paleontologists think dinosaurs walked. There may be someone, somewhere who could use this information. Dr Vasquez believes so anyway, stating in his study that “careful phenotypic manipulation of extant birds can open new avenues of experimental investigation into unexplored facets of dinosaur locomotor mechanics and energetics, providing a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between form and function in dinosaur evolution.”
Among the other winners was Callum Ormonde of the University of Western Australia along with his team, who discovered a way to unboil an egg by using a device that folds proteins. Their research saw them triumph in the Chemistry category and offers hope to those who boil eggs unintentionally.
The Mathematics Ig was awarded to Elisabeth Oberzaucher and Karl Grammer of the University of Vienna, Austria. They wanted to either prove or disprove claims that 17th Century Moroccan emporer Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty could have fathered more than 800 children in just 30 years. Their statistical models show that, yes, this is indeed physically possible although it would have required Moulay to have sex once or twice a day every single day for his whole life. One inferred conclusion is that Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty must have really loved blood if he managed to avoid being called Moulay Ismael the Horny.
A Slovakian-Japanese collaboration picked up the Ig for medicine by showing the health benefits of “intense kissing and other intimate personal acts”. In a selfless sacrifice for science they kissed intensely and acted intimately upon their persons to establish that doing so has a calming effect on a range of allergic reactions. And to think that all this time we’ve been taking pills and applying creams.
There’s an Ig for literature too and that was given to Mark Dingemanse at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. Dingemanse studied all known human languages and determined that all use the word Huh?. “It’s the basic error signal people fall back on if all else fails,” Dingemanse said.
While the Ig Nobels are shamelessly tongue-in-cheek, the science they mockingly celebrate does sometimes have a positive, practical impact on humanity. For example previous winning research that found malaria mosquitos are particularly fond of Limburger cheese and the smell of human feet led to the cheese being used as bait in traps laid to combat malaria in parts of Africa.
As Justin Schmidt (he of the Bug Sting Pain Scale) put it: “Sometimes these crazy things provide a lot of insight.”
If you’re a fan of the eccentric, visit the Ig Nobel website for plenty more scientifically-proven weirdness.