Ig Nobel Prizes Honor Self-Colonoscopies and Kidney Stone-Dislodging Roller Coasters

iStock
iStock

Not all science awards are reserved for discoveries that revolutionize their fields. As the Ig Nobel Prize recognizes, sometimes a largely pointless, but wildly creative, study is just as worthy of accolades. On September 13, the Ig Nobel Prize continued its tradition of honoring achievements "that make people laugh, and then think" with its 28th annual ceremony.

The Ig Nobel Prize recognizes work across a variety of fields. This year, the medicine prize was awarded to Marc Mitchell and David Wartinger for their investigation of whether or not riding a roller coaster can dislodge a kidney stone. The answer: It can, at least if you're riding in the back car of the Big Thunder Mountain coaster at Walt Disney World. Other notable winners include a study detailing a self-administered colonoscopy and one that asks if using a voodoo doll of your boss is an effective way to manage workplace aggression (it is).

You can check out the full list of 2018 Ig Nobel Prize recipients below.

MEDICINE

"For using roller coaster rides to try to hasten the passage of kidney stones."

Winners: Marc Mitchell and David Wartinger

Study: "Validation of a Functional Pyelocalyceal Renal Model for the Evaluation of Renal Calculi Passage While Riding a Roller Coaster," published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association

ANTHROPOLOGY

"For collecting evidence, in a zoo, that chimpanzees imitate humans about as often, and about as well, as humans imitate chimpanzees."

Winners: Tomas Persson, Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, and Elainie Madsen

Study: "Spontaneous Cross-Species Imitation in Interaction Between Chimpanzees and Zoo Visitors," published in Primates

BIOLOGY

"For demonstrating that wine experts can reliably identify, by smell, the presence of a single fly in a glass of wine."

Winners: Paul Becher, Sebastien Lebreton, Erika Wallin, Erik Hedenstrom, Felipe Borrero-Echeverry, Marie Bengtsson, Volker Jorger, and Peter Witzgall

Study: "The Scent of the Fly," published in bioRxiv

CHEMISTRY

"For measuring the degree to which human saliva is a good cleaning agent for dirty surfaces."

Winners: Paula Romão, Adília Alarcão and the late César Viana

Study: "Human Saliva as a Cleaning Agent for Dirty Surfaces," published in Studies in Conservation

MEDICAL EDUCATION

"For the medical report 'Colonoscopy in the Sitting Position: Lessons Learned From Self-Colonoscopy.'"

Winner: Akira Horiuchi

Study: "Colonoscopy in the Sitting Position: Lessons Learned From Self-Colonoscopy by Using a Small-Caliber, Variable-Stiffness Colonoscope," published in Gastrointestinal Endoscopy

LITERATURE

"For documenting that most people who use complicated products do not read the instruction manual."

Winners: Thea Blackler, Rafael Gomez, Vesna Popovic and M. Helen Thompson

Study: "Life Is Too Short to RTFM: How Users Relate to Documentation and Excess Features in Consumer Products," published in Interacting With Computers

NUTRITION

"For calculating that the caloric intake from a human-cannibalism diet is significantly lower than the caloric intake from most other traditional meat diets."

Winner: James Cole

Study: "Assessing the Calorific Significance of Episodes of Human Cannibalism in the Paleolithic," published in Scientific Reports

PEACE

"For measuring the frequency, motivation, and effects of shouting and cursing while driving an automobile."

Winners: Francisco Alonso, Cristina Esteban, Andrea Serge, Maria-Luisa Ballestar, Jaime Sanmartín, Constanza Calatayud, and Beatriz Alamar

Study: "Shouting and Cursing While Driving: Frequency, Reasons, Perceived Risk and Punishment," published in the Journal of Sociology and Anthropology

REPRODUCTIVE MEDICINE

"For using postage stamps to test whether the male sexual organ is functioning properly."

Winners: John Barry, Bruce Blank, and Michel Boileau

Study: "Nocturnal Penile Tumescence Monitoring With Stamps," published in Urology

ECONOMICS

"For investigating whether it is effective for employees to use voodoo dolls to retaliate against abusive bosses."

Winners: Lindie Hanyu Liang, Douglas Brown, Huiwen Lian, Samuel Hanig, D. Lance Ferris, and Lisa Keeping

Study: "Righting a Wrong: Retaliation on a Voodoo Doll Symbolizing an Abusive Supervisor Restores Justice," published in The Leadership Quarterly

Florida Is Home to 'Skull-Collecting' Ants, Because Florida

Florida’s Formica archboldi ants are not to be messed with. As Newsweek reports, a North Carolina-based researcher recently discovered that the species applies a waxy coat to its body to chemically mimic its intended prey, a kind of trap-jaw ant in the genus Odontomachus. Then, the predator sprays its unsuspecting prey with acid to immobilize it and drags it back to its underground lair, where it dismembers the body and presumably eats everything but the hollowed-out heads.

The Florida ant’s habit of letting the heads pile up in its nest has earned it a pretty grisly nickname: the “skull-collecting ant.” This behavior has been observed since the 1950s. However, scientists have only recently learned how the Florida ant manages to kill trap-jaw ants, which are formidable predators in their own right (they can snap their jaws shut at speeds of over 100 miles an hour).

Researcher Adrian Smith, head of the Evolutionary Biology & Behavior Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, observed the F. archboldi ants mimicking trap-jaw ants at the chemical level by coating their bodies in the same waxy substance that covers their prey. Smith says they’re probably disguising themselves, but the extent to which they do so isn’t yet known.

The ants were also seen shooting formic acid from their abdomens to render the trap-jaw ants motionless. The new findings were published in the journal Insectes Sociaux, and Smith even captured the gruesome action on camera, which you can check out in the video below.

Smith says he’s been fascinated with the ants—which are also found in parts of Alabama and Georgia—since he was an undergrad student at Florida State.

“They’re one of the most badass ants I know of. That’s why I wanted to study them—they decorate their nests with skulls,” Smith told The Verge. “A lot of other ants do cool things, but these are special to me because they’re from Florida, and I’m from Florida."

[h/t Newsweek]

The Science Behind Brining Your Thanksgiving Turkey

iStock.com/LazingBee
iStock.com/LazingBee

At many Thanksgiving tables, the annual roast turkey is just a vehicle for buttery mash and creamy gravy. But for those who prefer their bird be a main course that can stand on its own without accoutrements, brining is an essential prep step—despite the fact that it requires finding enough room in the fridges to immerse a 20-pound animal in gallons of salt water for days on end. To legions of brining believers, the resulting moist bird is worth the trouble.

How, exactly, does a salty soak yield juicy meat? And what about all the claims from a contingency of dry brine enthusiasts: Will merely rubbing your bird with salt give better results than a wet plunge? For a look at the science behind each process, we tracked down a couple of experts.

First, it's helpful to know why a cooked turkey might turn out dry to begin with. As David Yanisko, a culinary arts professor at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, tells Mental Floss, "Meat is basically made of bundles of muscle fibers wrapped in more muscle fibers. As they cook, they squeeze together and force moisture out," as if you were wringing a wet sock. Hence the incredibly simple equation: less moisture means more dryness. And since the converse is also true, this is where brining comes in.

Your basic brine consists of salt dissolved in water. How much salt doesn't much matter for the moistening process; its quantity only makes your meat and drippings more or less salty. When you immerse your turkey in brine—Ryan Cox, an animal science professor at the University of Minnesota, quaintly calls it a "pickling cover"—you start a process called diffusion. In diffusion, salt moves from the place of its highest concentration to the place where it's less concentrated: from the brine into the turkey.

Salt is an ionic compound—its sodium molecules have a positive charge and its chloride molecules have a negative charge, but they stick together anyway. As the brine penetrates the bird, those salt molecules meet both positively and negatively charged protein molecules in the meat, causing the meat proteins to scatter. Their rearrangement "makes more space between the muscle fibers," Cox tells Mental Floss. "That gives us a broader, more open sponge for water to move into."

The salt also dissolves some of the proteins, which, according to the book Cook's Science by the editors of Cook's Illustrated, creates "a gel that can hold onto even more water." Juiciness, here we come!

There's a catch, though. Brined turkey may be moist, but it can also taste bland—infusing it with salt water is still introducing, well, water, which is a serious flavor diluter. This is where we cue the dry briners. They claim that using salt without water both adds moisture and enhances flavor: win-win.

Turkey being prepared to cook.
iStock

In dry brining, you rub the surface of the turkey with salt and let it sit in a cold place for a few days. Some salt penetrates the meat as it sits—with both dry and wet brining, Cox says this happens at a rate of about 1 inch per week. But in this process, the salt is effective mostly because of osmosis, and that magic occurs in the oven.

"As the turkey cooks, the [contracting] proteins force the liquid out—what would normally be your pan drippings," Yanisko says. The liquid mixes with the salt, both get absorbed or reabsorbed into the turkey and, just as with wet brining, the salt disperses the proteins to make more room for the liquid. Only this time the liquid is meat juices instead of water. Moistness and flavor ensue.

Still, Yanisko admits that he personally sticks with wet brining—"It’s tradition!" His recommended ratio of 1-1/2 cups of kosher salt (which has no added iodine to gunk up the taste) to 1 gallon of water gives off pan drippings too salty for gravy, though, so he makes that separately. Cox also prefers wet brining, but he supplements it with the advanced, expert's addition of injecting some of the solution right into the turkey for what he calls "good dispersal." He likes to use 1-1/2 percent of salt per weight of the bird (the ratio of salt to water doesn't matter), which he says won't overpower the delicate turkey flavor.

Both pros also say tossing some sugar into your brine can help balance flavors—but don't bother with other spices. "Salt and sugar are water soluble," Cox says. "Things like pepper are fat soluble so they won't dissolve in water," meaning their taste will be lost.

But no matter which bird or what method you choose, make sure you don't roast past an internal temperature of 165˚F. Because no brine can save an overcooked turkey.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER