Sometimes, there are moments when you wonder how in the world someone got funding to research their arcane niche in science. At other times, you wonder how someone even thought that it was something worth further study. This is what the Ig Nobel awards recognise: research that makes you laugh, research that makes you think, and that stems from imagination rather than economic imperative.
This year, University of the Witwatersrand scientist Marcus Byrne joined the illustrious ranks of Ig Nobel winners for putting boots and caps on dung beetles. Fashion for insects.
There is a scientific use for this, though: to study the movement of dung beetles and prove that they orientate themselves by celestial objects.
Published in online scientific journal Plos One earlier this year, Byrne – who shares the prize with co-researcher Emily Baird from Lund University in Sweden – found that the dung beetle, with a brain the size of a grain of rice, is the first proven case of an animal using the Milky Way for navigation.
"An interesting feature of dung beetle behaviour is that once they have formed a piece of dung into a ball, they roll it along a straight path away from the dung pile," says Baird.
The authors write: "This straight-line orientation ensures that the beetles depart along the most direct route, guaranteeing that they will not return to the intense competition (from other beetles) that occurs near the dung pile.
"Before rolling a new ball away from the dung pile, dung beetles perform a characteristic 'dance', in which they climb on top of the ball and rotate about their vertical axis."
Byrne says: "We think that (by dancing) they're getting a celestial fix, and responding to navigational queues."
The booties and hats helped measure their orientation.
The ceremony took place on Thursday night and the awards were handed out by genuine Nobel laureates, namely Dudley Herschbach (chemistry, 1986), Eric Maskin (economics, 2007), Frank Wilzcek (physics, 2004), Sheldon Glashow (physics, 1979) and Roy Glauber (physics, 2005).
Byrne and Baird now find themselves in illustrious company. Here are some of last year's winners, taken from the Ig Nobel website:
- Anita Eerland, Rolf Zwaan and Tulio Guadalupe for their study, Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller;
- The United States Government General Accountability Office for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommend the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports ;
- Rouslan Krechetnikov and Hans Mayer for studying the dynamics of liquid sloshing to learn what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee;
- Frans de Waal and Jennifer Pokorny for discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimps individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends;
- Emmanuel Ben-Soussan and Michel Antonietti for advising doctors who perform colonoscopies on how to minimise the chance that their patients will explode.