Ig Nobel Awards Honor Wacky Science
September 30, 2011

Ig Nobel Awards Honor Wacky Science

The annual Ig Nobel Prizes, an American parody of the real Nobel Prizes, which have been awarded yearly since 1991, were given out this year at Harvard University, with real Nobel Prize winners handing out the honors.

The Ig Nobel Prizes awards ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research. To win, scientists must “first make people laugh, and then make them think,” according to the Ig Nobel ethos.

Perhaps the top honor of the evening, the biology prize, went to Professor Darryl Gwynne, an international expert in behavioral ecology, specifically the evolution of reproductive behavior, and colleague David Rentz, for their 1983 paper: “Beetles on the Bottle: Male Buprestids Mistake Stubbies For Females.”

The title translates to ℠beetles tragically attempting to mate with an Australian beer bottle.´

Gwynne, from the University of Toronto, Mississauga, discovered during separate research, that a male Australian jewel beetle tried to mate with a beer bottle, and died in the hot sun during the failed copulation attempt.

“I´m honored, I think,” Gwynne said, with a smile on his face. “The awards make people think, and they´re a bit of a laugh. Really, we´ve been sitting here by the phone for the past 20 plus years waiting for the call. Why did it take them so long?”

Gwynne and Rentz were conducting the field work in Western Australia back in 1983 when they noticed the unusual mating ritual. “We were walking along a dirt road with the usual scattering of beer cans and bottles when we saw about six bottles with beetles on top or crawling up the side. It was clear the beetles were trying to mate with the bottles.”

The bottles resemble a “super female” jewel beetle, said Gwynne. The bottle is big and orange-brown in color, with a slightly dimpled surface near the bottom -- designed to prevent the bottle from slipping out of one´s hand -- that reflects light in much the same manner as female´s wings cover. The bottles were irresistible to the males. The males either fried in the hot sun, were eaten by hungry ants or had to be removed by the researchers.

The duo determined that the males were attracted only to stubbies, and not to beer cans or wine bottles of a slightly different shape and color. They also noted that it wasn´t the contents of the bottles that captured the beetles´ attention either. “Not only do western Australians never dispose of a beer bottle with beer still in it, but many of the bottles had sand and detritus accumulated over many months,” the researchers noted.

Gwynne said, with beer and sex humor aside, the research had a serious message. When humans interfere in an evolutionary process -- perhaps unwittingly throwing their stubbies to the roadside -- there can be unintended consequences. In the case at hand, female jewel beetles are ignored by the males, who are much more attracted to the bottles. This could have a huge impact on the natural world.

“Improperly disposed of beer bottles not only present a physical and ℠visual´ hazard in the environment, but also could potentially cause great interference with the mating system of a beetle species,” the paper said. To that end, Gwynne forwarded research results to a leading western Australian brewer.

And secondly, Gwynne pointed out that the research supports the theory of sexual selection: that males, in their eagerness to mate, are the ones that make mating mistakes.

Gwynne conducted his research as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Western Australia in Nedlands. He joined U of T Mississauga in 1987. The research was published in the journal of the Entomological Society of Australia and the U.K.-based journal, Antenna.

Gwynne and Rentz were not the only honorees at the annual Ig Nobel Prizes.

The medicine prize was won by a Dutch-Belgian-Australian team with “Inhibitory Spillover,” a probe into the age-old challenge of needing to pee at a busy moment.

The team investigated why “people make better decisions about some kinds of things -- but worse decisions about other kinds of things, when they have a strong urge to urinate,” the awards citation said.

The psychology prize went to a University of Oslo professor who studied “why, in everyday life, people sigh?”

The physiology prize went to a British-Dutch-Hungarian-Austrian team who studied yawning in red-footed tortoises. During the long-term study, they found that there is “no evidence of contagious yawning” in the creatures.

A French-Dutch group won the physics prize “for determining why discus throwers become dizzy and why hammer throwers do not.”

John Senders of the University of Toronto won the public safety prize for studying the performance of a driver “on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him.”

The chemistry prize went to a Japanese team who determined “the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of fire.”

The mathematics prize was awarded jointly to six academics who over the years have vigorously predicted the end of the world, and are still around to hear of their mock-honor. They were thanked for “teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions.” However, one of the mathematics laureates still believes life will end on October 21 of this year.

The peace prize went to the mayor of Vilnius in Lithuania, who became so fed up with a parking violator that he took an armored personnel carrier and simply ran over the offending luxury car.

And the final award, the literature prize, went to John Perry of Stanford University, who was honored for his “Theory of Structured Procrastination” -- namely the technique of always working on something important, “using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important.”

The humor found in the research, goes hand-in-hand with the humor in the presentations of the awards as well.

Asked by the master of ceremonies what the laureates receive, and assistant announced: “an Ig Nobel prize.” Asked if there was anything else, the assistant added: “a piece of paper saying they´ve won an Ig Nobel prize.”

The prize itself is a board with tiny legs and a depiction of chemistry's periodic table. “A periodic table table,” as the master of ceremonies expressed without expression.


On the Net: