Cape Town - A Wits University professor and his Swedish colleagues who dressed up dung beetles in specially designed caps and boots as part of their research have been honoured with the world’s wackiest scientific award: an Ig Nobel Prize.
Professor Marcus Byrne and his Lund University colleagues accepted their prize at a colourful 23rd First Annual Ig Nobel Prize awards ceremony at Harvard University in the US on Thursday night, joining the illustrious and often eccentric ranks of winners who’ve been recognised since 1991 for conducting research that first makes you laugh, and then makes you think.
The awards are organised by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research and the ceremony is co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students and the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association.
The name of the award is a pun derived from the Nobel Prize suite of awards and from the word “ignoble”, which means “not honourable in character or purpose” and/or “of humble origin or social status”.
The research by Byrne and his team, which won the 2013 award for biology and astronomy, involved dressing the dung beetles in designer gear to help prove these insects use the Milky Way to orientate themselves, and that they climb on top of their dung balls to cool their bodies as they roll the ball away from competitors at the dung pile.
The experiments were conducted under the simulated night sky of the Wits Planetarium and the results were published in January.
Ten new Ig Nobels were awarded last night, with the identities of winners kept secret until the last minute. Acceptance speeches are brief, with a time limit enforced by an eight-year-old girl dubbed Miss Sweetie Poo.
Genuine Nobel laureates physically hand prizes to the winners, and scheduled to attend last night’s ceremony were Dudley Herschbach (chemistry, 1986), Eric Maskin (economics, 2007), Frank Wilzcek (physics, 2004), Sheldon Glashow (physics, 1979) and Roy Glauber (physics, 2005). One of them was also to be the prize in the Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest.
The journal Nature, arguably one of the two most prestigious scientific journals in the world, says the Ig Noble awards “come with little cash, but much cachet”.
And the organisers say they are definitely not designed to ridicule: “We are honouring achievements that make people laugh, then think. Good achievements can also be odd, funny, and even absurd; so can bad achievements. A lot of good science gets attacked because of its absurdity. A lot of bad science gets revered despite its absurdity.”
One of the most bizarre winners was the invention by Dr Elena Bodnar of a brassiere that can be converted into a pair of protective face masks. She won the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize in public health.
Do winners ever decline the honour?
“In almost every case, we quietly talk with those who are selected and give them the option to decline the honour. Nearly all of them decide to accept, and also decide to come be part of the ceremony,” say the organisers.
* See http://www.improbable.com/ig/
* 2012 Psychology prize for a study “Leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower seem smaller”.
* 2012 Anatomy prize for the discovery that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their bottoms.
* 2012 Literature award to the US Government General Accountability Office for its report about reports about reports, that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.
* 2012 Physics award for calculating the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in a human ponytail.
* 2012 Medicine award for advice to doctors performing colonoscopies on how to minimise chances that their patients will explode.
* 2011 Biology prize for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle (“Beetles on the Bottle: Male Buprestids Mistake Stubbies for Females”) (Coleoptera).
* 2011 Chemistry prize to Japanese researchers who invented the”wasabi alarm” by determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi to awaken sleeping people. - Cape Argus