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Science

Science in Mind

Untamed study of shrew-eating wins Ig Nobel Prize

Katrina Rosenberg (left) put a light on speaker Bert Tolkamp of the Netherlands who accepted a Probability Prize at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University.  Sharada Sundaram-Senders, 8, scolded Tolkamp for his lengthy speech.

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Katrina Rosenberg (left) put a light on speaker Bert Tolkamp of the Netherlands who accepted a Probability Prize at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University. Sharada Sundaram-Senders, 8, scolded Tolkamp for his lengthy speech.

It is a scientific rite of autumn: each year, scientists travel from around the world to an auditorium at Harvard University, where they are pelted with paper airplanes and scolded by an easily bored girl.

It is the Ig Nobel Prizes, the sold-out comedic awards ceremony that honors research that probably will not change the world but may make you chuckle. WARNING: At least one finding may cause nausea.

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Organized by the “Annals of Improbable Research,” a science humor magazine, the ceremony held Thursday skirts the difficult line between mockery and celebration. The research projects are nearly always conceived entirely seriously, and the simplest response would be to see the prizes as a mockery of science. But even when the methodology or the findings may seem inherently ridiculous, a little digging reveals a real, unanswered question at its root.

Scientists always emphasize that it is important to not be afraid to ask questions, and to remember that things that seem obvious in retrospect may have been unknown before someone set up the experiment. Of all the awards handed out Thursday, the archeology prize may illustrate that best.

Brian Crandall was just an undergraduate at Binghamton University two decades ago, interested in testing whether there was a way to discern whether the bones of small mammals discovered at archeological sites might be the remains of critters consumed by humans. No one knew what the human stomach did to a small rodent.

So Crandall and his adviser, Peter Stahl, devised an experiment in which a participant would parboil a shrew and swallow it pretty much whole, then provide their excrement for scientific study.

“It was about 4 inches long, and we skinned it and eviscerated it, and then lightly boiled it for about two minutes, with a little bit of tomato sauce, as I recall,” Crandall said.

Crandall declined to name the adult male volunteer who ate the shrew, with the elliptical statement, “a little mystery about that is healthy.”

The paper, published in the Journal of Archeological Science in 1995, found that the human stomach is a barbaric environment for a shrew. Bones and teeth just disappeared, dissolved by stomach acid. The paper concludes, somewhat disappointingly, that human digestion may be too destructive to provide helpful clues to scientists. But on the upside, Crandall said that the person who ate the shrew felt fine afterward.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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