Dung beetles in caps and boots win Wits scientist the Ig Nobel prize

2013-09-13 11:33

Dressing up dung beetles in caps and boots to determine how they navigate might not sound like Nobel prize-winning science.

But studying the fashionable dung beetles was good enough for Wits scientist Professor Marcus Byrne to grab one of 10 coveted Ig Nobel prizes last night at Harvard University.

The Ig Nobel awards, a parody of the real Nobel prizes, are awarded to scientists whose research first makes you laugh, then makes you think.

And they are quite a coup for the scientists involved. Byrne and his team accepted the prize at the quirkily named 23rd First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

Byrne, an entomology lecturer, and his colleagues from Lund University in Sweden, designed caps and boots for dung beetles and dressed the beetles in their new apparel to prove, firstly, that dung beetles use the Milky Way to orientate.

The caps blocked light from reaching their eyes in order to experiment with how they use starlight to navigate. The boots, in a fashionable luminous green, blocked heat from reaching the dung beetles’ feet.

The dung beetles’ gear also allowed the scientists to study how the beetles climb on top of their dung balls to cool their bodies as they roll the ball away from competitors at the dung pile.

The Wits scientist has often proclaimed that he is “fascinated by poo” owing to the incredible creature that is the dung beetle.

“According to dung beetles, dung is pretty good stuff,” he said. “And they always seem to know where they exactly wanted to go with the ball, even when we tried to confuse them.”

Byrne and his team wanted to know how they were able to navigate so well, and also why they dance on top of a dung pile to find their way ... And the answer was celestial bodies such as the sun, moon and stars. And even more surprising was that the clever little dung beetle was able to read the stars to find its way.

Byrne’s experiments revealed that despite their rice grain-sized brains, the beetles could use the faintest light of the Milky Way as their personal GPS. They also saw how the ingenious beetle danced to starlight on top of their pile of dung, to find their light to show them the way.

It was the creative experiments and the humour in some very serious science that impressed the Ig Nobel judges.

In his brief acceptance speech, the quite quirky Byrne himself said that “you can’t do science without balls”.

Winners’ acceptance speeches are quite brief – only 60 seconds, opposed to the much longer speeches given by Nobel laureates – and the time limit is enforced by an eight-year-old who has to curb the scientists’ enthusiasm. But they are given more time the following Saturday, plus a projector, to explain their research more fully.

Genuine Nobel laureates handed out the prizes to winners. Attending the ceremony were Dudley Herschbach (chemistry, 1986), Eric Maskin (economics, 2007), Frank Wilzcek (physics, 2004), Sheldon Glashow (physics, 1979) and Roy Glauber (physics, 2005).

As part of the fun science evening, there was also a date with one of these Nobel laureates up for grabs for the audience. The ceremony, attended by 1 200 people, is normally sold out months in advance.

The awards are organised by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) in cooperation with several Harvard student groups.

The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.

The organisers say the aim of the awards is not to poke fun at science.

“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.”

Other winners of the Ig Nobel were Anita Eerland, Rolf Zwaan and Tulio Guadalupe for their study Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller in Psychology, and Johan Pettersson for solving the puzzle of why, in certain houses in the town of Anderslöv, Sweden, people’s hair turned green in Chemistry.

The literature category was won by the US Government General Accountability Office for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports .

In Physics, Joseph Keller, Raymond Goldstein, Patrick Warren and Robin Ball won for calculating the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in a human ponytail.

Other winners studied the dynamics of liquid sloshing, what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee, discoveries that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends, and advice on how to perform colonoscopies in such as a way as to minimise the chance that the patient will explode.

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