In the summer of 1888, celebrated Swedish scientist and weapons manufacturer Alfred Nobel was worried. Having picked up a morning copy of a French newspaper, he was alarmed to read a macabre sounding obituary, proclaiming that ‘The merchant of death is dead’. He was even more astonished when he discovered the name in the piece was his own. Though it turned out that the paper had got him and his recently deceased brother mixed up, the incident got Nobel thinking about the morbid legacy his line of employment was leaving. Determined to turn public opinion in his favour, he laid the foundations for the Nobel Prize.
Widely recognised as the most coveted and prestigious award in any field, the Nobel Prize ceremonies are The Oscars of the intellect. With separate prizes for physics and chemistry (among others), the great and good of the scientific community flock to Scandinavia in their hundreds every year for a night of glitz, glamour and geeking out. For scientists, this is the hottest ticket in town.
Unsurprisingly, the Nobels are a serious business. Only the most straight-laced are allowed anywhere near Norway and Sweden when competition is in the air. Given this strict criteria, it’s inevitable that there are some who will never end up with an invitation to the ceremony. This leaves whole swathes of less sensible scientists out in the cold. Fortunately, there is another ceremony that caters for the more flamboyant members of the community. Though no less intellectual, these alternative awards are, first and foremost, a celebration of silliness. Over the years, the Ig Nobel Prizes have become the home of weird science.
Though they encompass a whole range of odd studies, from an experiment to levitate a live frog to the recent discovery that ostriches become sexually aroused when in the presence of humans, some of the most remarkable Ig Nobel discoveries have focused on food. Perhaps the most astonishing is down to the work of a team of Australian chemists at Flinders University, Adelaide.
By using a contraption referred to as a vortex fluidic device, the team have managed to figure out how to unfold boiled egg whites and turn them from a solid back into their raw form. The VFD harnesses the power of mechanical energy to counteract thermal energy by spinning at an incredibly high speed, causing heat-distorted protein bonds to revert back to their original shapes. Thus, for the first time in human history, we can now unboil eggs.
Professor John Raston, who led the study, described the feeling of putting an egg into the machine as his “Eureka moment”. He went on to add that his immediate reaction was to exclaim, “Wow, did I just do that?” His incredulity is understandable, as for years scientists have used eggs as a way to explain to laypeople the second law of thermodynamics - a law which states that an object cannot revert from being disordered to ordered again. Though this experiment seems to defy the laws of physics, the mind-blowing results speak for themselves.
“If you think of a protein as a long piece of spaghetti,” Raston explained, “it coils up in a special way. Often these proteins coil up into structurally incorrect shapes which makes them extremely difficult to process, but the vortex fluidic device causes the proteins to unwind and refold normally by spinning the material in a liquid in a rapidly rotating tube which can be titled at different angles, and the speed of rotation can be varied.” This is how Raston and his team are able to laugh in the face of thermodynamics.
It’s easy to think that this discovery, though cool, is ultimately pointless. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the number of potential applications for the technology are staggering. Given that the VFD focuses on changing the shape and properties of proteins, any industry in which proteins play a part is likely to be affected by the development.
Though there are food industry experts who have already come forward with ideas for how the VFD can best be used, the most exciting possibilities lie in pharmacology. Since most modern cancer treatments are dependent on unfolded proteins of the type that the machine produces, the new tech could drastically cut costs for cancer care. In fact, the processing of proteins is a central aspect of much of the global pharmaceutical industry - worth an estimated $160bn annually. Small wonder that unboiling an egg is as exciting as it is.
The Ig Nobels are advertised as “the awards that make you laugh, then make you think”. Over the years, they have given the world some indescribably silly studies in the name of science. However, it could well be that the work by Dr Raston and his team marks a seminal moment, where the awards gain the recognition they deserve. It may not be as immediately impressive as discovering DNA, but in its own way, this revelation could be just as significant.