The 2010 Ig Nobel prize ceremony held at Harvard University, Boston on Thursday September 30th saw Earthwatch’s very own Head of Climate Change Research Dr Dan Bebber receive a coveted Ig Nobel prize for a paper, co-authored with colleagues from Oxford and Japan, that draws parallels between slime mould networks and the Tokyo underground system.
The awards ceremony is now in its twentieth year and continues to divide opinion amongst its audience. Ultimately the organisation’s goal is to engage people’s curiosity by ‘honouring achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think’.
Dan and his colleagues’ experiment focused on the properties of slime mould foraging for food and how it holds onto food sources by creating network ‘loops’. The template which was used to chart this network was a map of the Tokyo underground system with pieces of food (oats) in place of the stations.
Dan explains: “Transport networks are complex, and designing one which optimizes a number of different desirable properties is difficult.”
He continues, “Biology is full of networks too. The slime mould needs to forage for food, and then keep hold of the different food supplies it finds. It does this creating a network that keeps the food connected. We measured the properties of that network, as applied to a map of the Tokyo underground system, with oats at the stations. We found that the slime mould builds a network that balances desirable properties, similar to that created by the Japanese rail designers. But the trick is the slime mould does it with no brain, and in a fraction of the time taken by humans. These simple equations can be used by us to design good transport networks.”
Examples like this help to illustrate why even strange, lowly organisms like slime moulds should be respected and cherished. Dan says, “We can learn from Nature, if we'd only stop destroying it so fast. Who knows what other marvels biodiversity has in store? The work that Earthwatch does is so important because it is providing opportunities for ordinary people to discover these marvels for themselves, working alongside leading scientists on cutting edge research worldwide.”
Read an interview with one of Dan’s research colleagues about their Ig Nobel project at Oxford University’s science blog here.