Big ears, didgeri­doo play­ing lead to sci­ence ‘No­bel’ prizes

Cer­e­mony hon­ors un­usual stud­ies


BOS­TON — Sci­en­tists who dis­cov­ered that old men re­ally do have big ears, that play­ing the didgeri­doo helps re­lieve sleep ap­nea and that han­dling croc­o­diles can in­flu­ence gam­bling de­ci­sions are among this year's re­cip­i­ents of the Ig No­bel, the prize for ab­surd sci­en­tific achieve­ment.

The 27th an­nual awards were an­nounced Thurs­day at Har­vard Univer­sity. The cer­e­mony featured a tra­di­tional bar­rage of pa­per air­planes, a world pre­miere opera and real No­bel lau­re­ates hand­ing out the 10 prizes.

"It's a strange honor to have, but I am thrilled," Dr. James Heath­cote told The As­so­ci­ated Press. A Bri­tish physi­cian, Heath­cote won the Ig No­bel for anatomy for his big-ear re­search.

The awards are spon­sored by the sci­ence hu­mor mag­a­zine An­nals of Im­prob­a­ble Re­search, the Har­vardRad­cliffe Sci­ence Fic­tion As­so­ci­a­tion and the Har­vardRad­cliffe So­ci­ety of Physics Stu­dents.

This year's win­ners — who each re­ceived $10 tril­lion cash prizes in vir­tu­ally worth­less Zim­bab­wean money — also in­cluded sci­en­tists who used fluid dy­nam­ics to de­ter­mine whether cats are solid or liq­uid; re­searchers who tried to fig­ure out why some peo­ple are dis­gusted by cheese; and psy­chol­o­gists who found that many iden­ti­cal twins can­not tell them­selves apart in vis­ual im­ages.

Heath­cote, whose study on ear size was pub­lished in the pres­ti­gious Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal in 1995, was in­spired when he and sev­eral other gen­eral prac­ti­tion­ers were dis­cussing how they could do more re­search.

When he asked why old men have such big ears, half his col­leagues agreed with his ob­ser­va­tion; the oth­ers scoffed.

For his study, Heath­cote mea­sured the ear length of more than 200 pa­tients and dis­cov­ered not only that old men have big ears but that ears grow about 2 mil­lime­ters (0.08 inches) per decade af­ter age 30. Women's ears grow with age, too, but their ears are smaller to start with, and men's big ears may be more no­tice­able be­cause they tend to have less hair, he found.

"There's some­thing mag­i­cal about mea­sur­ing the ears," he said.

Dr. Milo Puhan's Ig No­bel peace prize-win­ning dis­cov­ery is a god­send for any­one who lives with an un­bear­ably loud snorer. He found that play­ing the didgeri­doo — that tubu­lar Aus­tralian abo­rig­i­nal in­stru­ment that emits a deep, rhyth­mic drone — helps re­lieve sleep ap­nea.

Puhan, di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Epi­demi­ol­ogy, Bio­statis­tics and Pre­ven­tion at the Univer­sity of Zurich in Switzer­land, stud­ied didgeri­doo play­ing af­ter a pa­tient with mild sleep ap­nea be­came con­vinced that it helped him.

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