Ig Nobel for 'whale breathalyser'

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

  • Published

A London-based scientist's use of a remote-control helicopter to get breath samples from whales has led to her being awarded an "Ig Nobel" Prize.

Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse's technique is used to collect gases and mucus exhaled by the giant mammals.

The tongue-in-cheek Ig Nobel awards for "improbable research" have become almost as famous as the real Nobels.

Other research lauded at the Igs ceremony included proof that germs tend to cling to bearded scientists.

Other slightly wacky science celebrated at the US ceremony included research that proved the symptoms of asthma could be treated by riding on a roller-coaster and wearing socks outside your shoes could reduce your chances of slipping on an ice path.

Dr Acevedo-Whitehouse, of the Zoological Society of London, was present at the Sanders Theater at Harvard University, US, to receive her award. Colleagues Agnes Rocha-Gosselin and Diane Gendron were also there.

Not to put it too finely, the trio collect "whale snot". They hang petri dishes under a mini-chopper and fly the vehicle over a surfacing whale just as it evacuates its blow-hole.

The exhaled gases and mucus blast the dishes which are then taken back to the lab to study the disease-causing micro-organisms carried by the animals.

The remarkable method of obtaining the samples was featured in the BBC series Oceans. You can see how it is done by watching the video at the top of this page.

Dr Acevedo-Whitehouse told BBC News she was delighted to receive the spoof honour: "I was slightly bemused at first, to be honest, but I think that it is important to recognize (and communicate) that science can be fun. My colleagues and I are actually quite proud to receive this award now. Beyond the actual results (which are actually very interesting) we certainly have had fun doing our whale-snot research!"

This was the 21st Ig Nobel ceremony. The awards are run by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research. They are supposed to "first make people laugh, and then make them think".

All the research, bar some special prizes, is real and published in bona fide academic journals. As part of the fun, the prizes are also handed over by genuine Nobel Laureates.

As usual, UK-based scientists featured heavily among the winning teams.

"Usually when you are an eccentric, you get punished. But in Britain, if you are an eccentric, you're kind of celebrated," awards organiser Marc Abrahams told BBC News.

The full list of winners:

Engineering Prize: Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse (UK) and colleagues for perfecting a method to collect whale snot, using a remote-control helicopter.

Medicine Prize: Simon Rietveld (Netherlands) and colleagues for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride.

Transportation Planning Prize: Toshiyuki Nakagaki (Japan) and colleagues for using slime mould to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.

Physics Prize: Lianne Parkin (New Zealand) and colleagues for demonstrating that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes.

Peace Prize: Richard Stephens (UK) and colleagues for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.

Public health Prize: Manuel Barbeito (US) and colleagues for determining by experiment that microbes cling to bearded scientists.

Economics Prize: Awarded to the executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar for creating and promoting new ways to invest money — ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof.

Chemistry Prize: Eric Adams (US) and colleagues for disproving the old belief that oil and water don't mix. The research, supported by BP, was published under the title: "Review of Deep Oil Spill Modeling Activity Supported by the Deep Spill JIP and Offshore Operator's Committee".

Management Prize: Alessandro Pluchino (Italy) and colleagues for demonstrating mathematically that organisations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.

Biology Prize: Libiao Zhang (China) and colleagues for scientifically documenting fellatio in fruit bats.

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