All-knowing toilets and taste-testing rocks amongst 2023 Ig Nobel winners

A peek into some of science's weirdest and wackiest research.
They turned a spider into what?! DepositPhotos

Sometimes science gets a little bit weird. Not every study delves into the most pressing issues ever—and thank goodness for that. Otherwise we’d never end up with the hilarious, strange, and often insightful research on scorpion constipation, levitating frogs, dung beetle astronomy, and the psychology of cheese-haters

Every year, the Ig Nobel awards give a much-needed nod to the goofy side of science. This year’s winners included everything from measuring nose hairs in cadavers, eating with electrified chopsticks, and assessing the impact of anchovy sex on ocean water mixing. Here are three of PopSci’s favorite weird research topics that got a shoutout this week from the 2023 Ig Nobel awards.

For dinner: rocks and fossils

Why do scientists want to lick rocks? You might not know this is a time-tested tradition, but University of Leicester geologist and paleontologist Jan Zalasiewicz did a deep dive into slurping on stones, which scored him the Chemistry and Geology prize.

“The rock lying by the roadside did not look like much of interest at first: a rather nondescript limestone, with little more to show to casual observation than a few vague blotches,” Zalasiewicz wrote in a Paleontological Association newsletter. “Anyway, old habits die hard, so I picked it up, licked the surface and put it, and my hand lens, to my eye.  The memory of the shock, and the thrill of minor discovery, is still fresh.  The little blotches turned out to be the most superb three-dimensionally preserved Nummulites foraminifera that one could hope to see, set in a marvelously revealing natural cement of sparitic calcite.” 

Apparently he’s not the only researcher with a hankering to taste a less-than-edible specimen: 18th century geologist Giovanni Arduino also licked his rocks. The added wetness can help scientists spot mineral particles better. Delicious.

Dead spiders as bizarre robots

Animal-inspired robots are everywhere—but what about animals as robots? One 2022 Advanced Science study asked the hard, or at least weird, question by turning a dead spider into an actuator on a robot. 

The scientists write in their paper that the walking mechanism of spiders, which relies on hydraulic pressure to extend their legs instead of antagonistic muscle pairs, can result in “a necrobotic gripper that naturally resides in its closed state and can be opened by applying pressure.”  In tests of the spooky, and even controversial, robot, they found it could grasp oddly shaped objects and lift up to 130 percent of its own mass. Using spider corpses has a few added bonuses, too:you can find them in nature and they break down a lot easier than most robot-building materials. 

There’s even a video if you want to see the spider-bot in action.

The toilet that knows all. 

Because your excrement can tell you a lot about your health, scientists in 2020 built a “smart” toilet with different ways to autonomously analyze human waste. We’re talking pressure and motion sensors, standard-of-care colorimetric assay, computer vision as a uroflowmeter for calculating flow rate and volume of urine, and deep learning to classify stool. The prestigious potty offers “performance that is comparable to the performance of trained medical personnel,” according to the authors.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because “smart toilets” are having a moment, including one such throne that appeared at CES this year. Of course, there’s a downside to an all-knowing toilet—the chance that the device could indefinitely store “private health data, including information about pregnancy and fertility,” as one privacy rights advocate pointed out in January. Still, something to ponder during your next trip to the loo.