Annals of Improbable Research

We did what? Scientists and science fans let down their hair at the annual bacchanal known as the Ig Nobel Prizes.

Crappy Navigation System and Shrew Swallowing Win Science's Highest (Dis)Honor

John is a Science contributing correspondent.

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—“Some people say our science is crap,” Marie Dacke, a biologist at Lund University in Sweden, lamented to 1100 people in a packed theater at Harvard University last night. However, she added, “crap is a vehicle.” In particular, African dung beetles roll balls of the stuff around, and by fooling dung beetles by making them wear tiny hats or showing them false images of the sky, Dacke and colleagues proved that dung beetles can use the Milky Way to navigate.

For that advance, Dacke and her team won the 2013 Ig Nobel joint prize in biology and astronomy. As the crowd cheered, Dacke accepted the prize: a small hammer sealed within a glass case with instructions to “use hammer to break glass in case of emergency” and $10 trillion. (Oh, that's Zimbabwean dollars, which are essentially valueless.) The prizes were handed over by several winners of the somewhat more-coveted Nobel Prize.

Hosted by Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobels honor research that “first makes people laugh, and then makes them think.” The dung beetle study is a case in point. When the insects find a pile of dung—their food source—they roll a ball of it away immediately to escape competitors. Their path is a remarkably straight line. But how do they keep on the straight and narrow? Dacke has studied the beetles for more than a decade to understand how they navigate.

The sun and moon could be used for orientation, but how do the beetles navigate when neither can be seen? In a carefully constructed set of experiments, Dacke’s team controlled what the beetles were able to see, by applying tiny blinders or erecting walls to hide parts of the sky. But the ultimate proof came from observing dung beetles rolling dung across the floor of a planetarium. The beetles changed their direction in response to the orientation of an image of the Milky Way, the bright band of stars that marks the center of our galaxy, as the researchers reported online on 24 January in Current Biology. It's the first known instance of this galactic navigation.

Dacke and colleagues had difficulty accepting their prizes, as their hands were occupied by giant red bouncy balls. Similarly, a team led by Masateru Uchiyama, a biologist at Teikyo University in Tokyo, arrived on stage in head-to-toe mouse outfits. The researchers won the Ig Nobel medicine prize for their study of the effect of music on mice that had received heart transplants. Control mice died after a week; those exposed to opera recordings survived as much as three times as long.

Some scientists dedicated their prizes to the research subjects who endured the kind of humiliating experiments that win Ig Nobels. Shinsuke Imai, a biochemist at House Foods Corp. in Chiba, Japan, rubbed fresh onion in his own eyes on stage in honor of the people who shed oniony tears for his research on an enzyme in onions that causes crying. Brian Crandall, a science educator based in Hudson, New York, won the archaeology prize for work he did as an undergraduate 2 decades ago at the University of Victoria in Canada. He dedicated the prize to the people who ate whole parboiled shrews for his study of the effect of human digestion on tiny mammal skeletons.

The swallowing of a dead shrew was about to be demonstrated on stage, but a lawyer stepped forth at the last moment to save the audience from “violence.” Whew!

The full list of 2013 Ig Nobel prize winners.

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