13 September 2013

South Africa: Wits Scientist Wins Ig Nobel Prize

press release

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 First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University on Thursday, 12 September 2013.

Professor Marcus Byrne from Wits University and his colleagues from Lund University in Sweden were awarded Ig Nobel Prizes in Astronomy and Biology for conducting research that first makes you laugh, and then makes you think.

Byrne and the 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 (read more), 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 (read more).

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. The IgNobel motto is that the prize is won for science that 'first makes you laugh' (i.e. dung beetles wearing hats and watching stars) 'and then makes you think'. So the poking fun at science is good. 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 the 2013 ceremony, 10 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded to winners from 18 nations on five continents. Genuine Nobel laureates physically handed out the prizes to the winners. They included Dudley Herschbach (chemistry, 1986), Eric Maskin (economics, 2007), Roy Glauber (physics, 2005) and Frank Wilczek (physics, 2004) presented 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 featured the world premiere of The Blonsky Device, a mini-opera in four acts. The story is inspired by the life and work of George and Charlotte Blonsky, the married couple who were granted a patent in 1965 for an "Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force". The about-to-be-mother is strapped onto a circular table, and the table is 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 titled: "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 for physics, for explaining why pregnant women don't tip over.

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