Shucking Oysters: Mad Scientists
By Alex Allen
Trigger/Allergen warning: the following article mentions spiders, nasal hairs, faeces, drugs, body parts, and shellfish.
Dead spider grippers. Nose hairs. Colliding pedestrians. What do these all have in common? They are some of the Ig Nobel prize winners, a cheeky take on the Nobel Prize. And what is more astonishing about these studies, is that they actually received funding.
Like most people, when I see a dead spider, I see a dead curled up spider. The 2023 Mechanical Engineering prize winners, a Rice University, Texas, team see something quite different: Internal hydraulics. What if we could use the bodies of dead spiders as tiny air-powered grippers for picking up tiny electronic parts, they wondered? So with that, they transformed a dead wolf spider into a gripping tool in just 10 minutes. Simply insert a needle into the prosoma (the body part containing the head and thorax) of a dead spider and affix with superglue to form a hermetic seal. Then attach a syringe full of air and puff the air into the spider legs to make them open up. After a couple of days of around 1,000 open and grip cycles, the wear and tear on the joints eventually caused the spider-gripper’s body to break down. This study stirred a bit of controversy from some academics. “Necrocapitalism” is what they fear. Creepy.
“The Quantification and Measurement of Nasal Hairs in a Cadaveric Population” was honoured in the 2023 Medicine category. This University of California study, with access to 20 cadavers (10 male and 10 female), counted the hairs in each cadaver’s nostril, and used a measuring tape to determine the distance of hair growth at the upper, lateral, and lower nostril. The results: The average nose hair count per nostril is between 120 and 122 hairs, and they typically grow from 0.81 to 1.035 centimetres. Next potluck, dazzle your dinner mates with this bit of trivia: Did you know that “the lateral wall of the nasal cavity is formed partly by the maxilla, partly by the ethmoid bone, and partly by the perpendicular part of the palatine bone. Further back, where the nasal cavity becomes the nasopharynx, the lateral wall is formed by the medial pterygoid plate”? Guaranteed to get the conversation rolling during those awkward silent moments.
An Ig Nobel winner in 2021 conducted experiments to learn why pedestrians sometimes collide with other pedestrians. The study showed a “link between individual anticipation and emergent pattern formation through our experiments of lane formation, where unidirectional lanes are spontaneously formed in bidirectional pedestrian flows.” Their results imply “that avoidance maneuvers are normally a cooperative process and that mutual anticipation between pedestrians facilitates efficient pattern formation.” If I’m not mistaken, it’s similar to merging …
In both academic literature and popular culture, there has been an account of an Inuit man long ago manufacturing a knife from his own frozen faeces and killing a dog. To evaluate the validity of this claim, in 2019 a Kent University, Ohio team tested the basis of that account via “experimental” archaeology. Volunteer M.I.E. went on a diet with high protein and fatty acids, which is consistent with an arctic diet, for eight days and volunteer M.R.B.’s diet was more traditionally Western. Their results suggest that knives manufactured from frozen human faeces are not functional. They tested the knives in −50 °C temperatures; used a metal file to sharpen the “blades”; and even tried a cold, hairless hide rather than a warm, hair covered hide. “In other words, we gave our knives the best possible chance to succeed and they still could not function.” They concluded that anthropologists “must actively seek out unsupported claims, assumptions, rumors, and urban legends, and by testing them ensure any narratives that follow are as sturdy as possible.” Sturdy, indeed.
Just the titles alone in science journals are mad. “Validation of a Functional Pyelocalyceal Renal Model for the Evaluation of Renal Calculi Passage While Riding a Roller Coaster.” Translation: using roller coaster rides to hasten the passage of kidney stones. “The Mouth, the Anus, and the Blastopore — open questions about questionable openings.” I’ll let you ponder this one. But, don’t you think it would be a brilliant name for a restaurant?
On a sober note, these mad scientists really like to f*ck with the animal world. Here’s a few examples: Effects of cocaine on honeybee dance behaviour. Effects of cocaine and heroin on the development rate of blowflies. Morphine addiction in ants. Cocaine addicted rats and reduced brain activity.
Under the guise of studying the effects of stress on marine life, a couple of scientists injected shrimp with bacterial infections and put them on a tiny underwater treadmill to see what would happen. In a result that would not surprise — or even interest — anyone, they concluded that the uninfected shrimp performed better than the infected shrimp. The study got $682,570 of taxpayer funding from the National Science Foundation. It could have been worse; they could have been injected with a heroin cocaine cocktail.
Here’s one: The Influence of Loss Aversion and Reference Points on the Decision-Making Behaviour of Merging … just saying.