Ig Nobel Ways To Answer Humanity’s Big Questions

Wombat poo cubed but not sliced like a pizza.

Australian researchers picked up the Ig Nobel Prize for Physics last week for answering one of the most baffling questions in science – how do wombats make cubed poo?

The awards held at Harvard University also saw Italian researcher Silvano Gallus, win the top Medicine prize for collecting evidence across a series of studies that pizza might protect against illness and death.

According to Australia’s wombat scientists, cubed poo has for decades baffled bushwalkers and biological scientists alike but now thanks to the University of Tasmania’s Dr Scott Carver, Dr Ashley Edwards and Dr Alynn Martin – together with Georgia Tech’s Professor David Hu – the secret of the unique cubed poo of wombats has been cracked.

Picking up the award, Dr Carver said that how and why wombats produce cubed faeces has fascinated many people for a long time.

Wombat poo.
Photo Credit: Bjorn Christian Torresen

“There are many colourful hypotheses to explain the phenomenon, but nobody had ever investigated it. This research has been a fun effort to answer the questions of how and why,” Dr Carver said.

What Dr Carver and his team uncovered was wombats have unusually long intestines – even longer than humans. In fact, they measure around 10 metres long compared to the seven metre intestines us humans have. Bearing this in mind and, considering wombats draw more water from their faeces than we do, the University of Tasmania team uncovered wombat poo cubes are formed in the intestine as opposed to the point of exit which would suggest wombats don’t have cookie-cutter rear ends.

Now I know most people probably think this is all rather ridiculous but that’s the point of the Ig Nobel prizes. They’re awarded based on the criteria that the research undertaken makes you laugh, and then makes you think.

And they’re wildly popular with approximately 9000 nominations each year competing for only 10 prizes. It’s probably more than the actual Nobel Prizes but then again, the Swedes are a little cagey about the nomination process.

For Dr Carver, “it’s a genuine honour to have our research recognised through this award, and of course, a lot of fun.”

Besides the wombat poo and the important research suggesting that pizza might prevent illness or death, other big winners on the night included the anatomy prize won by French researchers who discovered the right scrotum is warmer than the left (or was it the other way round) in French postmen.

The Ig Nobel for Biology went to a global team including researchers from Australia discovering that dead magnetized cockroaches behave differently than living magnetized cockroaches. Who would have thought it?

And calculating the amount of saliva produced by a dribbling five-year-old in a single day picked up the Chemistry prize for a team of Japanese researchers and continuing the dribble theme, the Psychology gong went to German Fritz Strack. His discovery: uncovering the fact that holding your pen in your mouth makes you smile and feel happy. His follow-up discovery – that it does not make feel you happy.

Pure genius and every winner answering the big questions of science.

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