Research on big ears, crocodile gambling wins Ig Nobels

The awards, in their 27th year, are given out for absurd scientific achievement.

By Mark Pratt / Associated Press

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 Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association and the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students.

This year’s winners — who each received $10 trillion cash prizes in virtually worthless Zimbabwean money — also included scientists who determined 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. But researched showed ears do grow after age 30.

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.

Why does it work? Puhan figures playing the didgeridoo helps people learn circular breathing (the technique of blowing out through the mouth while simultaneously inhaling through the nose) and strengthens the throat muscles used in breathing.

The economics prize went to a pair of Australians who found that if you want to limit your gambling losses, don’t have a close encounter with a crocodile before hitting the casino.

Matthew Rockloff, head of the Population Research Laboratory at Central Queensland University in Bundaberg, and research assistant Nancy Greer, plunked a 3-foot saltwater crocodile — its mouth safely taped — into the arms of people about to gamble and watched what happened.

The excitement caused by handling a dangerous reptile caused people with pre-existing problems to “gamble higher amounts, which over the long term will lead to greater gambling losses,” Rockloff said.

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