Now here’s news you can use: To stop snoring, try playing the Australian didgeridoo.
The scientists who demonstrated that regular playing of the elongated wind instrument could serve as an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea and snoring were among the honorees at this week’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University.
The “27th first annual” ceremony also paid tribute to research studies that looked into whether cats are best classified as a solid or a liquid (with inconclusive results) and why old men have big ears (it’s complicated).
The Ig Nobels are presented annually by the Annals of Improbable Research and its improbably ingenious editor, Marc Abrahams, who serves as master of ceremonies. They recognize achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. They also serve as a humorous riff on the much more serious Nobel Prizes.
About 1,100 spectators attended Thursday night’s awards ceremony at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. The prize announcements were punctuated by paper airplane fly-offs, presentations by genuine Nobel laureates, and pleas from an 8-year-old girl to “please stop” when the acceptance speeches went over 60 seconds.
The recognition for the big-ear research was a long time coming – 22 years, to be precise. To scratch a scientific itch, British physician James Heathcote and his colleagues measured the ears of more than 200 patients and found that their average length grew about 2 millimeters per decade after age 30.
Although men’s and women’s ears all grow with age, women’s ears are smaller to begin with and tend not to be as noticeable beneath the longer hair typically sported by the female sex.
Heathcote flew in from London for the ceremony. “It’s a strange honor, but I’m thrilled,” he told The Associated Press.
The cat study was even stranger: French physicist Marc-Antoine Fardin applied the principles of fluid dynamics to see whether supple felines can conform to their containers so well that they’d fit the scientific metrics for liquids rather than solids. Fardin found that the question was hard to answer, in part because cats are “active” rather than “passive” materials.
“Much more work remains ahead,” he wrote in a paper published by Rheology Bulletin.
Ig Noble winner: "On the rheology of cats” is a real research paper about the apparent fluidity of cats sitting inside things << Brilliant! pic.twitter.com/qaPHrk6gdN
— Mark Riedl (@mark_riedl) September 15, 2017
The sleep study, conducted by researchers in Switzerland, found that patients with moderate sleep apnea improved their condition after playing the didgeridoo at least five days a week. It’s thought that the therapeutic effect comes from learning a playing technique known as circular breathing.
A follow-up study suggested that playing a double-reed wind instrument such as the oboe can have a similar effect. However, experts caution that the findings are highly preliminary, and that patients with significant sleep problems shouldn’t depend solely on the didgeridoo.
“No one should discontinue CPAP on the basis of these studies,” medical researcher Vicki Thon said in an advisory from the American Sleep Apnea Association.
Here’s the full list of 2017 Ig Nobel Prizes and citations:
- Physics Prize: Marc-Antoine Fardin, for using fluid dynamics to probe the question “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?”
- Peace Prize: Milo Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz and Otto Braendli, for demonstrating that regular playing of a didgeridoo is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea and snoring.
- Economics Prize: Matthew Rockloff and Nancy Greer, for their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person’s willingness to gamble.
- Anatomy Prize: James Heathcote, for his medical research study “Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?”
- Biology Prize: Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, and Charles Lienhard, for their discovery of a female penis, and a male vagina, in a cave insect.
- Fluid Dynamics Prize: Jiwon “Jesse” Han, for studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee.
- Nutrition Prize: Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard and Rodrigo Torres, for the first scientific report of human blood in the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat.
- Medicine Prize: Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly and Tao Jiang, for using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese.
- Cognition Prize: Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi and Salvatore Maria Aglioti, for demonstrating that many identical twins cannot tell themselves apart visually.
- Obstetrics Prize: Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, Alberto Prats-Galino and Luis Pallarés Aniorte, for showing that a developing human fetus responds more strongly to music that is played electromechanically inside the mother’s vagina than to music that is played electromechanically on the mother’s belly.
The Ig Nobel Prizes are typically handed out just before the real Nobels are announced. For what it’s worth, there’ll be a gap of more than two weeks this time around: 2017’s Nobel laureates will be revealed starting Oct. 2.