A Whale of a Time at the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony

Steven J. Kazlowski,, Newscom

To find what types of bacteria live inside whales, researchers collect samples of "whale blow" with special paddles or a remote-controlled helicopter. That feat won the scientists an Ig Nobel Prize in engineering this year.
September 30, 2010

Science bloggers showered praise on Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse two years ago when a BBC television program showed her research team flying remote-control helicopters into the blowhole mists of whales to collect snot samples that could be examined for pathogens.

Admiration turned to accolades on Thursday night as Ms. Acevedo-Whitehouse and two fellow scientists collected the 2010 Ig Nobel Prize in Engineering for their ingenious approach to wildlife-conservation research.

Five genuine Nobel laureates—Sheldon Glashow (physics, 1979), Roy Glauber (physics, 2005), Frank Wilczek (physics, 2004), James Muller (peace, 1985), and William Lipscomb (chemistry, 1976)—handed out awards Thursday in 10 categories at "the 20th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony." The science-humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research produced the cheeky event, which honors achievements each year that first make people laugh, and then make them think.

Some of the honors were bestowed this year with a deep sense of irony and a keen appreciation for current events.

BP, sponsor of this year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill, shared the chemistry prize with three scientists who staged an experimental oil and gas spill off the coast of Norway in 2000 for proving that, in fact, oil and water do mix. And the subprime-mortgage disaster got its props when the leaders of such companies as Goldman Sachs, AIG, and Lehman Brothers received the economics prize "for creating and promoting new ways to invest money." (Representatives of the financial giants and the petroleum company were suspiciously absent when the awards were doled out.)

Helicopter Scientists

More than 100 feet long and prone to acrobatic leaps out of the water, the blue whale presents a special problem for any scientist hoping to collect samples of its blood and tissue. Ms. Acevedo-Whitehouse, a veterinarian with the Zoological Society of London until this year, had long focused her research on sea lions, cuddly pinnipeds that are easily sedated and studied.

In 2003 she began working with Diane Gendron, an ecologist at the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico who had been studying blue, gray, and sperm whales in the Gulf of California for more than two decades. The two scientists, working with a graduate student, knew they would have a hard time collecting blood samples from the various whales to establish baseline data on the types of bacteria inhabiting them. So they decided to examine the cetaceans' respiratory products—or, put more bluntly, their snot.

"I said, 'Why don't we just insert a swab into the whale's blow hole?'" Ms. Acevedo-Whitehouse recalls. "Diane laughed at that" because it was so impractical.

The solution they eventually hit upon was a "blow-catcher," a series of sterile petri dishes affixed to foam panels that would be extended from a boat via an aluminum pole over the whale's spout. It worked well most of the time, but some whales resisted approach.

Ms. Acevedo-Whitehouse then proposed using remote-control helicopters to capture the bacteria-laden spray. "The hard part was convincing the director [of the zoological society] to purchase the helicopter," a 3 1/2-foot model that retails for about $1,600, she says. "The concern was that it was going to go straight into the ocean on the first attempt."

The idea did work, although it proved expensive to routinely bring in an experienced hobbyist to pilot the craft up to 60 meters away in the often unpredictable ocean gusts. The foam panel on the pole continued to be the scientists' preferred tool. But when a BBC television crew hitched a ride on the research boat and broadcast footage of the helicopter's daring flights over the open ocean in late 2008, reporters started calling Ms. Acevedo-Whitehouse.

Whale blow is usually innocuous but sometimes gag-worthy, says Ms. Acevedo-Whitehouse, who is moving from London for a post at Mexico's Autonomous University of Queretaro starting in January. On one memorable trip, she says, a Canadian documentary-film crew rode along to capture footage of the giant sea mammals. All was well till "one of the whales exhaled, and everyone on the boat was ready to throw up." Maybe, she surmised, "some of the whales have a respiratory problem" that causes the blow to stink.

Whale-watching tourists are known to give big tips to boat pilots who will take them closer to the whales for a better view, Ms. Acevedo-Whitehouse says. In some cases, the passengers have even kissed the creatures. Such human-whale interaction, she says, can transmit dangerous pathogens both ways between the two species.

"We want our science to be useful for conservation and management," Ms. Acevedo-Whitehouse says. "We have several years now of data, starting in 2005. If it keeps fairly stable, then we can say, 'That's what's normal for the population.'"

As for the helicopter, it hasn't gone into the drink yet, despite the researchers' fears about its life span.

The full list of 2010 Ig Nobel winners:

Engineering: Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and Agnes Rocha-Gosselin of the Zoological Society of London, and Diane Gendron of the National Polytechnic Institute, in Mexico, "for perfecting a method to collect whale snot, using a remote-control helicopter." (Paper: "A Novel Non-Invasive Tool for Disease Surveillance of Free-Ranging Whales and Its Relevance to Conservation Programs," Animal Conservation, April 2010.)

Medicine: Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam, and Ilja van Beest of Tilburg University, both in the Netherlands, "for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride." (Paper: "Rollercoaster Asthma: When Positive Emotional Stress Interferes With Dyspnea Perception," Behaviour Research and Therapy, 2006.)

Transportation planning: Toshiyuki Nakagaki of the Future University-Hakodate, in Japan; Kentaro Ito of Hiroshima University; Kenji Yumiki, Ryo Kobayashi, Atsushi Tero, Seiji Takagi, Tetsu Saigusa, all of unidentified institutions; and Dan Bebber and Mark Fricker of the University of Oxford, "for using slime mold to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks." (Paper: "Rules for Biologically Inspired Adaptive Network Design," Science, January 22, 2010.)

Physics: Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest of the University of Otago, New Zealand, "for demonstrating that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes." (Paper: "Preventing Winter Falls: A Randomised Controlled Trial of a Novel Intervention," New Zealand Medical Journal, July 3, 2009.)

Peace: Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University, England, "for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain." (Paper: "Swearing as a Response to Pain," NeuroReport, August 5, 2009.)

Public health: Manuel S. Barbeito, Charles T. Mathews, and Larry A. Taylor of the Industrial Health and Safety Office, Fort Detrick, Md., "for determining by experiment that microbes cling to bearded scientists." (Paper: "Microbiological Laboratory Hazard of Bearded Men," Applied Microbiology, July 1967.)

Economics: The executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar Capital "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: Eric Adams of MIT, Scott A. Socolofsky of Texas A&M University, Stephen Masutani of the University of Hawaii-Manoa, and BP, "for disproving the old belief that oil and water don't mix." (Paper: "Review of Deep Oil Spill Modeling Activity Supported by the Deep Spill JIP and Offshore Operator's Committee. Final Report," 2005.)

Management: Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo, all of the University of Catania, Italy, "for demonstrating mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random." (Paper: "The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study," Physica A, February 2010.)

Biology: Libiao Zhang, Min Tan, Guangjian Zhu, Jianping Ye, Tiyu Hong, Shanyi Zhou, and Shuyi Zhang, all of China, and Gareth Jones of the University of Bristol, England, "for scientifically documenting fellatio in fruit bats." (Paper: "Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time," PLoS ONE, Vol. 4, No. 10.)