Roy Exum: How To ‘Unboil’ An Egg

Sunday, September 27, 2015 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Every year I eagerly await the Ig Nobel awards where actual scientific research comes up with seemingly wacky results. Earlier this month, in a big production in the famous Sanders Theater at Harvard University, the Annals of Improbable Research presented its 2015 winners and, while they make you laugh, the whole idea is that they also cause you to think. I am hardly alone. Nature Magazine claims the Ig Nobels “are arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar." 

For instance, this year’s Ig Nobel for Diagnostic Medicine was awarded to a research team from Britain that discovered in a comprehensive study that if a person cries out in agony when you go over a speed bump in the road, it may be an indicator whoever yelped may have acute appendicitis.

The Ig Nobel for language went to a trio of researchers who found there is a “repair initiator” in virtually every language in the world that is used when one person does not clearly understand what another has said. Yes, “huh” is universal.

But the one that made me laugh was this bunch of yahoos who hard-boiled an egg and then “unboiled” it by using a vortex fluid device. Here’s how it works: When the egg is boiled, the proteins “are folded and refolded in a messy, disordered form.” But by using mechanical energy, the scientists were able to make those same proteins return to their original, untangled shape.

Can you imagine anything as silly and stupid? Not until you think about this – what if we could someday do the same thing to a cancer tumor? The pharmaceutical industry knows that proteins in some drugs sometimes misfold and are useless, but by using the “boiled egg” technique, laboratories would be able to return those same proteins to their original state. Now it is not quite as funny, huh? And for the record, the unboiling of an egg in scientific jargon is, “Shear-Stress-Mediated Refolding of Proteins from Aggregates and Inclusion Bodies.”

The Ig Nobel for management discovered that CEOs who “experience a natural disaster without extremely negative consequences are far more apt to take bigger risks in business” but … extreme levels of fatal disasters cause our same leaders to be more cautious. In other words, if nobody dies it is easier to be brave.

The Ig Nobel for mathematics went to a team that studied the bloodthirsty Sultan Moulay Ismail of Morocco who, when he ruled from 1672 to 1727, was reputed to have bedded a different woman every day for 32 years. The algorithm the researchers came up with, based on three models of conception and different social and biological restraints, proved the Sultan could have fathered more than 1,000 children. But can you imagine the reading of the will?

The police department in Bangkok, Thailand was awarded this year’s Economics award after their higher-ups decided to pay the cops on the force extra cash if they refused to accept bribes from speeders and the like. And, get this, the award for medicine went to a team that discovered if people who kiss in a way that exchanges saliva it can most definitely reduce the severity of skin allergies. The only catch is you that you have to “suck face” sometime BEFORE you mess around with poison ivy.

The best one came from Michael Smith, who is employed with the department of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell. Working on a project that deals with pain, he had bumble bees sting him on over 25 locations of his body to find out what hurt the most and what hurt the least. We almost need a drum roll to report his findings. The least? The skull, the middle toe tip and the upper arm all rated 2.3 on his one-to-ten scale. The worst was his nostril (9.0), upper lip (8.7) and the shaft of his manhood (7.3), which – obviously -- is yet another reason to keep one’s zipper pulled up.

In the field of physics, researchers determined after deep study it takes almost every animal 21 seconds to urinate. Doesn’t make any difference if it is an elephant with a five-gallon bladder or a tree squirrel with a much-smaller bucket – the average time for horses, kangaroos and leopards is 21 seconds under ideal conditions. NOTE: this does not include your dog when he is visiting in the yard of another dog because “marking territory” doesn’t count.

For biology, determined scientists got a bunch of young, hardy chickens and attached artificial tails on the birds. This way they were able to move each bird’s center-of-mass to behind the chickens’ legs. So, sure enough, the idea that meat-eating dinosaurs stood on two legs (called theropods) makes perfect sense.

Remember this: It was Sherlock Holmes who once reminded us: "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." To find out more, please look at the website www.improbable.com I promise you it is a hoot.

royexum@aol.com



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