Science Fun of the Week
(September 15th, 2017) Get ready for your weekly dose of science fun. Today: Prize-winning ear research.
Among the winners of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize is retired general practitioner, James Heathcote, who wondered, in 1995, “Why do old men have big ears?” (Anatomy Prize). In the introduction of the paper, published in the Christmas issue of the BMJ, Heathcote reveals the study’s background:
“In July 1993, 19 members of the south east Thames faculty of the Royal College of General Practitioners gathered at Bore Place, in Kent, to consider how best to encourage ordinary general practitioners to carry out research. Some members favoured highly structured research projects; others were fired by serendipity and the observations of everyday practice. Someone said, ‘Why do old men have big ears?’ Some members thought that this was obviously true - indeed some old men have very big ears - but others doubted it, and so we set out to answer the question ‘As you get older do your ears get bigger?’”
After analysing 206 patients, the resulting scatter blot showed a relation between length of ear and age. “It seems therefore that as we get older our ears get bigger (on average by 0-22 mm a year),” Heathcote concluded, adding “Why ears should get bigger when the rest of the body stops growing is not answered by this research. Nor did we consider whether this change in a particular part of the anatomy is a marker of something less easily measurable elsewhere or throughout the body”.
Back in 1996, the paper attracted numerous responses from around the world. Amongst others, Kay-Tee Khaw, professor of Clinical Gerontology at Cambridge, wrote, “Readers may be interested to know that in the Chinese art of physiognomy one longstanding belief is that long ears predict longevity. (…) However, I don't think that I would go as far as my grandmother (one of the last generation of Chinese women with bound feet), whom I remember admonishing me in early childhood to stretch my ears daily to ensure long life.”