Ig Nobel Prize Honors Funniest Science Research: Yawning Tortoises, Beetles That LOVE Beer Bottles, and More

Ig Nobel Prize Honors Funniest Science Research: Yawning Tortoises, Beetles That LOVE Beer Bottles, and More

Alisa Opar
Published: 09/30/2011


Wilhelmina, a red-footed tortoise, yawning. Photo by Peter Baumber.
 
I adore the Ig Nobel Prize. You read that correctly—this isn’t the prestigious and sober Nobel Prize, it’s funny and fantastic. The annual honor, administered by the group Improbable Research, is given to scientific research that makes people “laugh and then think.”
 
This year’s winners explored quirky questions, including: Is yawning contagious for red-footed tortoises? How does having to pee affect people’s decision-making? Why is that beetle trying to mate with a beer bottle? Does driving over cars parked in the bike lane with an armored tank deter illegal parking (note: to find out, scroll down to the video below)?
 
Anna Wilkinson, from the University of Lincoln, and colleagues took home the physiology prize for their study examing whether the red-footed tortoise exhibits contagious yawning. They worked hard for it, too. Wilkinson says it took about six months to train Alexandra, one of the tortoises, to yawn on command. Then they looked at whether six other tortoises yawned after she did. No dice.
  
The results didn’t surprise the team. While animals from fish to birds to lions yawn, the only ones known to be susceptible to contagious yawning are humans and “higher primates.” The thinking is that the phenomenon is a result of empathy, or inferring how others are feeling. Wilkinson says the findings lend weight to this idea. “It suggests that a relatively high level mechanism may be controlling the behavior.”
  
As for those beer bottle-loving insects: It seems certain Australian beetles will try to copulate with discarded beer bottles. But they have standards—they won’t attempt to mate with just any old container. The horny fellas ignored green glass wine bottles, for instance. Instead, they fancy brown beer bottles with stipples (those tiny bumps), which they might have mistaken for markings on females' wings.
 
The full list of winners is below, but here’s one more treat. For your viewing pleasure we bring you a video of the Ig Nobel Peace Prize winner in action. Arturas Zuokas, the bicycle-riding mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, was honored for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.
 

 
PHYSIOLOGY PRIZE: Anna Wilkinson, from the University of Lincoln, and colleagues for their study in the journal Current Zoology “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise.”
 
BIOLOGY PRIZE: Darryl Gwynne David Rentz for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.
 
CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Makoto Imai and colleagues for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.
 
MEDICINE PRIZE: Mirjam Tuk and colleagues for demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things—but worse decisions about other kinds of things—when they have a strong urge to urinate.
 
PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE: Karl Halvor Teigen of the University of Oslo, Norway, for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh.
 
LITERATURE PRIZE: John Perry of Stanford University for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which says: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important.
 
PHYSICS PRIZE: Philippe Perrin Herman Kingma for determining why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don't.
 
MATHEMATICS PRIZE: For teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations:
-Dorothy Martin of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1954)
-Pat Robertson of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1982)
-Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1990) -Lee Jang Rim of Korea (who predicted the world would end in 1992)
-Credonia Mwerinde of Uganda (who predicted the world would end in 1999)
-Harold Camping of the USA (who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994 and later predicted that the world will end on October 21, 2011)
 
PEACE PRIZE: Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.
 
PUBLIC SAFETY PRIZE: John Senders of the University of Toronto for conducting a series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him.