And the Winner Is ...

Each autumn, researchers across the globe eagerly anticipate—or dread—the annual announcement of the science community's tongue-in-cheek prizes

10-01-2007 // Cynthia Berger

EVERY SCIENTIST DREAMS of the moment: It's early in the morning. The phone rings. And a polite man tells you that you've won a prize. Ben Wilson got a call like that once. "The man on the line says he's Marc Abrahams ringing from Harvard," recalls the Canadian fisheries scientist. "He goes on, 'You may consider this good news or perhaps you won't. Our board has selected you for this year's Biology prize. Would you like to accept it? I'll understand if you don't.'"

Wait a minute. Not good news? Not want the prize? Ah, of course. This was not about the prestigious Nobel Prize. Wilson and his colleagues had been tapped for the parody prizes, the Ig Nobels.

Organized by the scientific humor journal Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobel Prizes were first awarded in 1991 for "research that cannot or should not be reproduced." Since then, the criteria have been expanded somewhat and Ig Nobels--this year's ceremony is on October 4--are given for scientific work that, says journal editor and cofounder Abrahams, "first makes people laugh, and then makes them think." After all, didn't they famously laugh at Galileo when he put forward the notion that the Earth goes around the sun?

The Ig Nobel judges certainly must have laughed at the discovery by Wilson and colleagues that herring communicate by, well, farting. (Actually, they contract muscles around their swim bladders to squeeze bubbles of air out through the anus, but, says Wilson, "that's near enough to a fart to get the press excited.")

Apparently the small silver fish pass gas, not at random, but on purpose--at night, when they get together in big groups. The Canadians deduced that the bubbly emissions are a way for fish to send the message, "Hey man, let's hang out, we'll be safer that way."

Farting fish may be amusing, but the Ig Nobels have their serious side--they're given only for work that is also worthwhile. In the case of flatulent fish, says Wilson, commercial fisherman may one day tune in to the sounds to hunt down big schools. He also speculates that increasing oceanic noise pollution could make it harder for marine mammals such as dolphins and whales, which may be able to hear the bubbles, to hunt down their herring prey.

Scan the list of winners over the past decade, and it's clear the judges reward potty humor. For example, the counterintuitive finding that dung beetles are finicky eaters landed Kuwaiti researchers Wasmia Al-Houty and Faten Al Mussalam the 2005 award for Nutrition.

Turns out those discriminating beetles go for herbivore dung over carnivore dung, and they like it as liquid as possible. In the lab, when offered a choice, beetles far preferred horse dung, which has the highest moisture content, over sheep dung or camel dung. Now, they didn't actually turn up their little beetle "noses" at dog and fox dung (which are low in water content), but the chef won't be putting these items on the list of specials any time soon.

Out in the beetles' desert environment, however, dung is a scarce resource, and the authors found that in the real world they make do (or is that doo-doo?). For example, fox dung isn't soft enough for the beetles to roll into the traditional dung balls, but they'll still shred and bury it for their beetle babies to eat.

In the same year the Kuwaitis were getting the poop on poop, Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow of the International University– Bremen in Germany and Jozsef Gal of Lorand Eotvos University in Hungary picked up the Ig Nobel award in Fluid Dynamics for having the intellectual curiosity to measure "Pressures Produced When Penguins Poo," a precise calculation of how much pressure builds up in avian bowels prior to defecation.

Meyer-Rochow found his inspiration in Antarctica, where he photographed a number of penguin nests (basically rock mounds) whose edges were curiously rimmed with a lacy network of white lines. Later, when he gave a slide show, a student asked how the penguins "decorated" their nests. The answer: "They get up, move to the edge of the nest, turn around, bend over--and shoot," said Meyer-Rochow. The student blushed, the audience laughed and the researchers had their award-winning research concept.

The research team, unfortunately, was unable to get visas to attend the awards ceremony in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Let's hope it had nothing to do with the explosive nature of our work," says Meyer-Rochow. It is too bad those visas were denied, because the ceremony is quite worth attending. It is held in Harvard University's Sanders Theater, a grand, wood-paneled, 1,000-seat hall inspired by Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford, England. But don't imagine hushed decorum. Costumes are popular. The audience does the wave (geekily). And until 2006, it was traditional for the audience to pelt those on stage with paper airplanes. (So-called "security concerns" have put an end to the charming practice.) Finally, real Nobel laureates are there to help hand out prizes to any recipient brave enough to show up.

The ceremony was "one of the best times I've had in my academic career," says University of California at Davis ophthalmologist Ivan Schwab, who took home the Ornithology prize in 2006 for his work (with the late Philip May of University of California at Los Angeles) explaining why woodpeckers don't get headaches after days spent whamming their heads against trees. Schwab showed up in a tuxedo (just like a real Nobel winner) and an elaborate woodpecker headdress, complete with cockade and beak.

"It was a terrific experience," says Craig Williams, a biologist at the University of South Australia and part of the brave five-man team that sniffed 131 different species of stressed-out frogs to land the 2005 Ig Nobel in Biology for "A Survey of Frog Odorous Secretions."

You didn't know that frogs will, when stressed, ooze smelly, species-specific secretions from their pores? Indeed. The odor catalog includes everything from nuts to grass to rotting flesh to menthol to oregano--"really, every herb you can think of except coriander," muses Williams. Now, why would a scientist stick his schnoz close to a stressed-out frog in the first place? Williams confesses: He was an undergrad and his professor made him do it. "He came bursting out of the lab one day and said 'Smell my fingers!'"

The professor had just stroked a lab frog and noticed it smelled like cashews. "We were searching for a new mosquito repellent," Williams explains, "and there were field observations that frogs didn't get bitten as much as they should have. We figured they must have some chemical repellent, and maybe it would be a new natural alternative to what was on the market. So we started smelling different frogs."

In the end, the team did publish a paper on frog-based mosquito repellents ("not as good as existing products--and they smell worse!" he reports). Still, Williams says the work was worthwhile. "Frogs spend a lot of energy to make these smells that just wash off in the water. Why do they do that? We assume the smells are anti-predator. But so far we don't know for sure. Answering these kinds of questions will help us understand more about these animals, and the information will be useful in conservation efforts."

As is so often the case in science, one question led to many more. Woodpecker researcher Schwab is not resting on his laurels, either. "I think the nictitating membrane kind of works like a seatbelt to keep the eyeball from popping out when the woodpecker is pecking. But some people are skeptical," he says. "So I've got a couple sets of woodpecker eyeballs waiting in the freezer at home" for more membrane tests. He claims his wife doesn't mind.

Meanwhile, Schwab relishes the memory of the awards ceremony, which Abrahams, the master of ceremonies, ends with a typical Ig Nobel send-off: "If you didn't win an award--and if you did--better luck next year."

Pennsylvania journalist Cynthia Berger studied insect behavior in graduate school but, alas, did not receive an Ig Nobel for her work. To see this year's winners (or losers), visit http://improbable.com.

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