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Ig Nobels put didgeridoo therapy and the liquidity of cats in the scientific spotlight

Didgeridoo players
Didgeridoo players get together for a jam in Bellbird Park in Australia. (Study Queensland Photo)

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.

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:

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.

Source: Geekwire Science

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