Aussies win Ig Nobel Awards 2015

By Natsumi Penberthy 18 September 2015
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Research proving the universality of the word ‘huh?’ and another that partially unboiled an egg win two funny-study gongs this year

THREE AUSSIE RESEARCHERS have made sure that Australia was once again well-represented at the Ig Nobel Prizes held a few hours ago at prestigious US university, Harvard.

The Ig Nobels, whose name, if you haven’t already spotted it, is a play on the word ignoble and a nod to the Nobel Prizes, is an irreverent event that’s been around for 25 years. The prizes are designed to recognise clever studies from all over the world that ‘first make people LAUGH, and then make them THINK’.

That’s not to say that these studies are novelty papers. The three Aussies representing us are responsible for some frankly brilliant work: a study on the word ‘Huh?’ that showed that almost every language in the world expresses confusion with a word that’s almost a grunt; and, another study that looked at an almost sci fi way to untangle proteins in a whizzy machine, the final result of which is a boiled egg becomes partially unboiled.

For the pragmatists amongst us it’s important to point out that these works have important implications, ranging from the potential for improving our experience with those annoying computerized customer-service voices to producing cancer fighting drugs.

Other Ig Nobels were awarded to studies that included: an examination on the standard bladder-emptying speed; observations on the medical effects of kissing; and, the lowdown on paying cash to policemen who refuse bribes.

Ig Nobel Prize for Literature: The amazing nature of the word ‘huh?’

Nick Enfield, a professor of linguistics at Sydney University, was one of three authors on the ‘Huh?’ paper. This “messy” word he says is the closest we’ve come to finding a universal word, a unicorn that has been eluding linguists for as long as the study of language has existed.

“There’s a vanishingly small list of even proposed ideas for such a word,” says Nick. “People have suggested things such as mama and okay that didn’t turn out to be universal simply by going out and checking more and more languages.”

Huh?, or a similar single-syllable variation, on the other hand, says Nick, appears to have evolved independently in all of the 10 languages he and his research team studied, because what all language has in common is two-way conversations where we basically have to interject quickly and discreetly when we don’t understand something. Huh? is what’s called a ‘repair’ when we’ve missed the meaning.

And, we use them often. On average, says Nick – in any language – a repair will be used roughly once every 90 seconds. “We’re constantly saying huh?, what?, who?, and stopping the progress of the conversation just to clarify something.”

“[Huh’s] terribly useful; we use it all the time,” Nick says, unlike, he takes pains to note, the more formal ‘pardon me?’ that our mums taught us. “Some people deny that they use [huh?] – but they’re lying,” he says.

It’s also totally unique to human conversation. “There’s no animal communication system that we know of that has anything like this type of a system,” Nick told Australian Geographic.

Their finding says Nick will shape a whole area of linguistic study and maybe even teach us something about programming computers to interact with us. For Nick he’d like to see it applied more to “clunky and not sort of very human-like” automatic telephone answering systems.

But it was really about what other people got from the study that sealed the Ig Nobel. “People really seemed to warm to the idea that the only universal word is a word of confusion,” says Nick.

Ig Nobel Prize for Chemistry: Why would you partially unboil an egg?

Why would you partially unboil an egg? Well, says the University of Western Australia’s Callum Ormonde – who, along with fellow Australian Professor Colin Raston from Flinders University, was part of the team to win an Ig Nobel for doing just that – egg enzymes are useful because they’re already well studied and so it’s easy to find research to compare their results with.

“Lysozyme (more specifically ‘HEWL’) the active enzyme present in egg whites was the first protein to be characterised in science,” says Callum, “…and [it] has a wealth of data published on it”.

Another reason, apparently, is that any science nerd who ends up studying thermodynamics will be familiar with the phrase: ‘You can boil an egg but can’t unboil it’.

“So it excited us all to be able to break the textbook example,” Callum says.

Callum and his team use a Vortex Fluid Device (VFD) invented by Colin Raston – basically a sophisticated whizzy machine that puts the egg whites under huge pressures to untangle egg proteins that have been fused in the boiling process. Untangling proteins has actually been done before, but it takes many days, while the new VDF method takes minutes.

The applications for this method and machine are so varied says Callum. It could be used to harvest very thin single-sheet graphene – which has been called a ‘super material’ and is 200 times stronger than steel – from graphite, which is the stuff in your pencils. It may also be able to help harvest the elements needed for anticancer drugs much faster by separating key proteins from unwanted elements, which makes the drugs much cheaper to make.

The egg white, however, just went back to its original, translucent goo. “After processing [it] appears much the same as you would imagine: a translucent colourless solution, slightly cloudy but quite similar to the white of a freshly cracked egg,” says Callum.