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.