Sep. 29, 2011 at 7:08 PM ET
Beetles who boink beer bottles ... a car-crunching mayor ... and researchers who study the link between pee pressure and decision-making? These have got to be the silliest science laureates of the year. At least that's what the folks behind this year's Ig Nobel Prizes intended.
Every year, the Ig Nobels recognize scientific achievements that make you laugh, and then make you think. The ceremony, organized at Harvard University by a science humor magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research, is timed to come just before the Nobel Prizes are announced, and around the time that the list is issued for the National Medals of Science and Technology.
Most of the Ig Nobel laureates are real scientists, although there are always a few honorees who would probably just as soon not be so "honored." For example, this year's mathematics prize went to a procession of failed doomsday prophets — including Harold Camping, the preacher who stirred up such a fuss earlier this year over the Rapture that didn't come. They won the award "for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations."
Last year marked a milestone for the Ig Nobels: Dutch-Russian physicist Andrei Geim, who received a funny physics prize in 2000 for his experiments in magnetic frog levitation, won a share of the honest-to-goodness Nobel Prize in physics for his work with graphene — thus becoming the first Ig recipient to win a Nobel as well.
As is traditional for the Ig Nobels, real live Nobel laureates helped hand out the awards at Harvard, and one of them was appointed to sweep up the paper airplanes that were thrown during the ceremony. An 8-year-old girl stood by to chant, "Please stop, I'm bored," if any recipient went over the 60-second limit for acceptance speeches.
Beer goggles for beetles
This year's biology prize went to Australian researcher David Rentz and his colleague at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, Darryl Gwynne, for writing a research paper about Australian jewel beetles who become so enamored with "stubby" brown beer bottles that they try to mate with them. In fact, they try so vigorously that they can die in the hot sun during their repeated attempts. It turns out that the bottles have the texture and sparkly orange-brown color that male beetles associate with a "super female" beetle, Gwynne said.
During tonight's ceremony, Gwynne joked that the research demonstrates that "only males make mistakes, not females." It also shows how humans and their trash can unwittingly interfere with evolution — which is the serious point behind the silliness.
Gwynne was a bit surprised to win an Ig Nobel for research published back in 1983. "I'm honored, I think," he said in a UT-Mississauga news release. "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?"
Focusing on peace and pee
The winner of this year's Ig Nobel Peace Prize is Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. Zuokas made a splash by driving an armored personnel carrier over cars that violated the city's parking rules.
"I just decided that it was time to teach bullies who had no respect for the rights of others a lesson that left an impression," he told The Associated Press in an email. Although the city currently uses more traditional methods to fight parking scofflaws — such as issuing tickets and towing vehicles — Zuokas says he keeps the tank on standby.
The studies on pee pressure were conducted by two groups of researchers who found that the need to urinate affected decision-making by their experimental subjects. One group found that moderate stress seemed to focus attention on the tasks at hand, but the other group concluded that an extreme need to urinate reduced attention span and the ability to make decisions.
"When people reach a point when they are in so much pain they just can't stand it anymore, it was like being drunk," Peter Snyder, a professor of neurology at Brown University, told AP. "The ability to hold information was really impaired."
Actually, the point behind Snyder's study wasn't really to see how long people can hold it. He and his colleagues were focusing more generally on how pain affects decision making. It just turns out that keeping people from voiding their bladders was a "low-cost, low-risk" way to create pain that's easily relieved after a quick zip to the bathroom.
Makes you think, doesn't it? Which of today's winners make you laugh? Which make you scratch your head ... and wonder how they ever got paid for doing this? Feel free to weigh in with your Ig Nobel ratings in the comment section below.
Here's the full list of 10 Ig Nobel laureates:
Physiology prize: Anna Wilkinson, Natalie Sebanz, Isabella Mandl and Ludwig Huber for determining that when a red-footed tortoise yawns, other tortoises don't yawn in response. Reference: "No Evidence Of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise Geochelone carbonaria."
Chemistry prize: Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm. Reference: US patent application 2010/0308995 A1. Filing date: Feb 5, 2009.
Medicine prize: Mirjam Tuk, Debra Trampe and Luk Warlop. and jointly to Matthew Lewis, Peter Snyder, Robert Feldman, Robert Pietrzak, David Darby and Paul Maruff for demonstrating that 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. References: "Inhibitory spillover: Increased Urination Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains" and "The Effect of Acute Increase in Urge to Void on Cognitive Function in Healthy Adults."
Psychology prize: Karl Halvor Teigen for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh. Reference: "Is a Sigh 'Just a Sigh'? Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task."
Literature prize: John Perry for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which says: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important. Reference: "How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done," later republished elsewhere under the title "Structured Procrastination."
Biology prize: Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle. References: "Beetles on the Bottle: Male Buprestids Mistake Stubbies for Females (Coleoptera)" (1983) and "Beetles on the Bottle" (1984).
Physics prize: Philippe Perrin, Cyril Perrot, Dominique Deviterne, Bruno Ragaru and Herman Kingma, for determining why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don't. Reference: "Dizziness in Discus Throwers is Related to Motion Sickness Generated While Spinning."
Mathematics prize: Dorothy Martin (who predicted the world would end in 1954), Pat Robertson (who predicted the world would end in 1982), Elizabeth Clare Prophet (who predicted the world would end in 1990), Lee Jang Rim (who predicted the world would end in 1992), Credonia Mwerinde (who predicted the world would end in 1999), and Harold Camping (who predicted the world would end on Sept. 6, 1994 and later predicted that the world will end on Oct. 21, 2011), for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.
Peace prize: Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank. Video: "Vilnius Mayor Fights Illegally Parked Cars With Tank."
Public safety prize: John Senders for conducting a series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him. Reference: "The Attentional Demand of Automobile Driving." Video: "Pioneer Days on Rt 128."
More about silly science:
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