Volume 16, Number 13
December 22, 2009

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This Week

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alper özkanThe Naming of Species

A few days ago, while I was sitting in front of a pile of notes and trying to complete yet another report, something struck me. As much as I would've liked it, Bilkent had no department of obscure trivia. I was a genetics student. So I figured I may as well write something about biology and set out to do precisely that. Fortunately, biology has no shortage of entertaining stories, one of which I wish to touch on this week.

I need not explain what a Nobel Prize is. Awarded each year in several fields, it is amongst the highest honors one may receive, but not many know of its tongue-in-cheek cousins: the Darwin Awards and Ig Nobel Prize. While the latter certainly features hilarious yet useful research like levitating frogs, labyrinth-solving slime and food preference of leeches (Okay, maybe not very useful... ), I prefer to focus on the former for now.

To earn a Darwin Award, one must fulfill certain criteria. They are thusly summed: You must do something so spectacularly stupid that it ends up removing you from the human gene pool (that is to say, killing or castrating you). And the scientist in this week's spotlight is Dr. Jack Handyside Barnes, who narrowly missed a Darwin Award.

His tale begins with Irukandji syndrome observed in Australia, characterized by horrific pain, nausea, vomiting, cramps, breathing difficulties and somehow rendering the patient sure that he's going to die. This last part is not a joke, apparently patients are so convinced that they're going to die that they ask their doctors to just kill them and spare them the pain. While not fatal by itself, this obviously makes it very easy to drown, especially since it hurts so much that you want to die. And our good doctor suspected a small sea creature's sting to be responsible for the symptoms.

Now, if you know anything about the wildlife of Australia, you'd be aware that the entire continent hates humanity with a fiery passion. From dingos to cassowaries, territorial magpies to funnel web spiders, blue-ringed octopi to cone shells, Australia has an amazing variety of animals that can make your life very difficult (or outright end it) if handled stupidly. And if you read how to get a Darwin Award above, you'll easily guess what's coming next.

Finding the beaches where stings were the most frequent, Dr. Barnes donned a wetsuit and sat on the seafloor for hours. He eventually caught sight of an animal matching what he suspected - a near-invisible, small, jellyfish-like critter. Now I ask you, with a potential suspect of an incredibly powerful sting in hand, how do you prove it really is the culprit? If you answered “Why, I'd let it sting me and see how close I am to dying!” then you may be the next Jack Barnes. But he also did something else, for which I cannot find words to describe. I will directly quote him instead.

“The first Carybdeid was applied to an adult (J.B.), and to a boy, aged nine years (N.B.). A robust young life-saver (C.R.) volunteered to test the second specimen, of similar size to the first.”

You should know who J.B. is by now, but who is this mysterious nine year old N.B.? The answer becomes clear when you know that Dr. Barnes had a young son called Nicholas. That's right, he got his nine-year-old son stung on purpose, presumably while cackling madly, to see if the animal he caught was venomous. And to his luck (or lack thereof), it was. The doctor, his son and the lifesaver were hospitalized, but all survived the incident and the animal was named Carukia barnesi in Dr. Barnes' honor. It is not known whether the trio gained superpowers from the incident.

Feel free to visit the Darwin Awards website and read about this mad scientist, among others. And make sure you always have a few relatives around in case you find a potentially venomous species and need a test subject or two at hand.


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