Ig Nobel Prize for dung beetle boots

13 September 2013

Dung beetles sporting custom-made caps and boots entered the annals of the Ig Nobel Prize when South Africa’s second ever winner was announced during the 23rd Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University on Thursday.

Organised by tongue-in-cheek magazine Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobel Prizes “honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think”, the magazine says on its website, adding: “The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology”.

Professor Marcus Byrne from Wits University in Johannesburg, along with his colleagues from Lund University in Sweden, were awarded Ig Nobel Prizes in Astronomy and Biology for their novel research on southern Africa’s famous dung beetle.

Byrne and his team 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, and secondly, that dung beetles climb on top of their dung balls to cool their bodies as they roll the ball away from competitors at the dung pile.

According to Byrne and team members Marie Dacke, Eric Warrant, Emily Baird and Clarke Scholtz: “We are very chuffed to win the Ig Nobel! Believe it or not, it is a significant recognition of one’s work, especially in reaching the wider general public.

“Poking fun at science is good,” the team continued. “The whole enterprise is one of questioning something – even the results – and enjoying it.

“All four of us are really honoured by the award and hope it spreads the word among the general public that science is not dry and boring but actually good fun. We think the Ig Nobel also highlights that basic curiosity-driven research leads to amazing insights into how our remarkable world works.”

South Africa has had one previous winner. In 1999, Charl Fourie and Michelle Wong were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Peace for inventing a burglar alarm for cars consisting of a detection circuit and a flamethrower.

During Thursday’s ceremony, 10 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded to winners from 18 countries on five continents – with genuine Nobel laureates, including Dudley Herschbach (chemistry, 1986), Eric Maskin (economics, 2007) and Roy Glauber (physics, 2005) – handing out the prizes to the winners.

One of these Nobel laureates was also the prize in the Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest.

The ceremony also featured the world premiere of The Blonsky Device, a mini-opera in four acts inspired by George and Charlotte Blonsky, who were granted a patent in 1965 for an “Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force”. The Blonsky’s device required the about-to-be-mother to be strapped onto a circular table which was then rotated at high speed. The Blonskys were posthumously awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in 1999.

The evening also included a special one-minute lecture entitled “The Biomechanical Forces Involved in Human Childbirth” by Daniel Lieberman, Harvard Professor of Biological Sciences. In 2009, Lieberman and two colleagues were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for explaining why pregnant women don’t tip over.

SAinfo reporter and Wits University