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Bottle-loving beetles, alarming wasabi powder, and tired tortoises: The 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes

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Funny and fascinating science got top billing at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the evening of 29 Sept. The 21st First Annual Ig Nobel Prizes, continued its tradition of recognizing science that “makes people laugh, and then makes them think.”

The biology prize went to a team studying confused and amorous beetles in Australia. Researchers there discovered that the males of the Australian jewel beetle are attracted to shiny brown beer bottles that are sometimes found discarded by the side of the road. The beetles are so tenacious in their desire to copulate with the vessels that they will not leave them, even when in danger of dying from sun exposure or being eaten by ants.

The beetles prefer the bottles even to female jewel beetles, making the roadside rubbish a conservation risk for the species, which is not very populous, notes Darryl Gwynne, who discovered the strange suitors while a postdoctoral researcher.

Gwynne, who is now a behavioural ecologist at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, says it’s an honour to receive the Ig Nobel, and appreciates how it brings more public attention to what scientists do. “I think humour is a really good hook to get people into a story and animal behaviour is a natural way to get you interested, and then make you think,” said Gwynne.

Animal behaviour was also featured in the physiology prize, which went to an Austrian, Dutch and UK team that found no evidence of contagious yawning in the red-footed tortoise. Yawning has been shown to be contagious in humans and other vertebrates, so the team trained a ‘demonstrator’ tortoise to yawn in front of his shelled buddies to see if the slow-and-steady crowd also caught yawns (they didn’t).

Breathy topics continued their run with the psychology and chemistry prizes. The former went to a Norwegian psychology professor for his work on why we sigh. While most of us perceive the sighs of others as a negative expression of emotion, Karl Teigen of the University of Oslo found that most people sigh as a result of “giving up” on what they are doing, or what they plan to do or want to do. The latter prize went to a Japanese group for finding the best amount of airborne wasabi to use as an alarm to awaken sleeping people during a fire or other emergency. The group’s US patent application notes that, unlike noise-based alarms, the nose-irritating wasabi could warn people with hearing impediments.


The unconventional (or downright absurd) activities of public figures almost always get a nod from the Ig Nobels, and this year was no different. The peace prize went to the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, who has taken a somewhat … heavy handed approach to law enforcement. In a video, the mayor asks the rhetorical question “What should the city do about drivers who think they are above the law?” and then answers it by driving over a Rolls Royce and a Ferrari — both parked illegally — with a tank.

The mathematics prize went to a group of mostly religious leaders and TV and radio evangelists. The non-mathematicians have each made various erroneous predictions about the end of the world and were honoured “for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.” The only prize winner who still has an ‘active’ prediction is Harold Camping of California, who had said the end days would come this past spring, and now has said they will come on 21 October.

Image caption: A male Australian jewel beetle attempts to mate with a beer bottle.

Image credit: Darryl Gwynne

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    Len Fisher said:

    Speaking as a former IgNobel Prize winner, I must congratulate Nature on the tone of this report, with its emphasis on how we can sometimes make science more accessible through humour. It is not the only way, of course, but it is an approach that has too often been neglected.

    Organizer Marc Abrahams hit the nail on the head when he introduced the present slogan “First they make you laugh; then, they make you think” following my worries that I expressed to him after the 1999 IgNobel awards about the old slogan that they were about work that “cannot, or should not, be repeated”.

    Congatulations, Marc, and congratulations Nature for picking up and delivering the message so effectively.

  2. Report this comment

    Len Fisher said:

    Speaking as a former IgNobel Prize winner, I must congratulate Nature on the tone of this report, with its emphasis on how we can sometimes make science more accessible through humour. It is not the only way, of course, but it is an approach that has too often been neglected.

    Organizer Marc Abrahams hit the nail on the head when he introduced the present slogan “First they make you laugh; then, they make you think” following my worries that I expressed to him after the 1999 IgNobel awards about the old slogan that they were about work that “cannot, or should not, be repeated”.

    Congratulations, Marc, and congratulations Nature for picking up and delivering the message so effectively.

  3. Report this comment

    Ted C. MacRae said:

    It should be noted that the species discussed in the Gwynne & Rentz paper is actually Julodimorpha saundersii, which at the time of their publication was considered a synonym of J. bakewellii. The former occurs throughout SW and Western Australia, while the latter is limited to eastern Australia. Refer to Bellamy & Wier (2008).