Spoof awards honour work that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think.
STARGAZING dung beetles, mice that survive for longer after heart surgery when they listen to opera, and whether or not you could walk on water on other planets – all of them are serious scientific questions that researchers sweated over for years. On Sept 12, their hard work was honoured with possibly one of the most sought-after nods from their scientific peers: an Ig Nobel prize.
This is the 23rd year of the awards – a spoof of the even more prestigious Nobel prizes, which will be announced next month. The 10 prizes, organised by the humour magazine Annals Of Improbable Research and awarded at Harvard University, honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”.
The joint astronomy and biology prize went to Eric Warrant’s team at the University of Lund for their discovery that dung beetles navigate using the stars.
The researchers had been studying the beetles’ ability to roll their balls of dung in straight lines by using the moon as a guide – they use the pattern of polarised light around the moon as a kind of celestial compass.
“One night, however, the night was moonless yet we noticed the beetles could still orient in straight lines,” said Warrant. “At first we were shocked and worried that our previous experiments using the moon were wrong. But then looking up we saw the broad stripe of light that is the Milky Way and realised they might be using this as a compass cue. This, it turns out, was the case.”
Warrant said other nocturnal navigators such as birds and moths may also use the Milky Way as a compass.
And there’s a potential practical use too, he added. “The principles we are uncovering in dung beetle navigation may be useful in the design of autonomous vehicles and robots, although this is likely to be few years off.”
Masanori Niimi, of Teikyo University in Tokyo, won the medicine prize for his finding that mice given heart transplants survived longer when they listened to particular music. Whereas mice normally survived an average of seven days, those that listened to Verdi’s opera La Traviata survived 27 days. Those listening to the Irish singer Enya survived 11 days.
Brad Bushman, of Ohio State University, won the psychology prize for confirming the familiar sense of feeling more attractive when you’ve had a few too many drinks. In his study, participants had to make a speech about how attractive, original and funny they were, which was rated by independent judges.
Those who were drunk when they made the speech (and even those who thought they were drunk) gave themselves more positive self-evaluations.
But the ratings from independent judges showed this was unrelated to actual performance.
“Drunk people might think they are more attractive, but they actually are not,” said Bushman. “This false belief may get drunk people into trouble, for example, if they come on too strong to a potential romantic partner because they think they are irresistible.”
The probability prize was awarded to animal scientists at Scotland’s Rural College for making two related discoveries. “First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up,” read their citation. “And second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again.”
Bert Tolkamp said he and his colleagues were running several research programmes aimed at improving animal health and welfare. In their award-winning research, they fitted sensors on cows’ legs that recorded how long they spent standing up or lying down.
The physics prize went to a study looking at how weak gravity would have to be on a planet for someone to be able to run across a lake of water without sinking. Alberto Minetti, of the University of Milan, and Yuri Ivanenko, of the Italian Research Hospital, suspended volunteers above a wading pool to simulate their weights on different planets under different gravity fields, and asked them to walk on water. Their results showed people could probably walk across ponds of liquid water on the moon but probably not on Mars.
Minetti said: “A serious implication is to stimulate thinking about the discrepancy between the (relatively fast) timing of space exploration and the long-lasting evolution that would be required to adapt actual living beings to locomote in different gravity environments.”
The Ig Nobels were handed out by Nobel prizewinners, including the physics laureates Roy Glauber, Frank Wilczek and Sheldon Glashow. Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals Of Improbable Research and founder of the Ig Nobel awards, ended the ceremony with the traditional goodbye: “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel prize tonight – and especially if you did – better luck next year.” – Guardian News & Media