since moved to the National University of Singapore.">

The science of modern life

By Steve Pointing 18/11/2015


On my Dear Science show this week, I highlight new research that may help to explain how we respond to some aspects modern life.

Obesity increases risk of respiratory disease
The first study is from Montreal, where a disturbing connection between obesity and respiratory health has been identified. The Journal Risk Analysis reports how obese individuals breathe up to 50% more air each day compared to healthy individuals.  This is due to their higher metabolic demand, and dwarfs the volume of air that even professional athletes breathe when competing.  The research highlights that the greater volume of inspired air means that exposure to pollutants, particulates and allergens is much higher in obese people and this is translating to higher incidence of respiratory disease.  As society becomes increasingly urbanized (and more polluted), and as New Zealanders become increasingly obese, this could be a major health problem for the obese in addition to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other complications.

Why does airplane food taste weird?
The second research I highlight is a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that identifies why many of us perceive that airplane food tastes weird!  The US study asked individuals to rate taste of food in the simulated noise environment of a passenger aircraft (around 85 decibels) compared to ambient noise levels.  Whilst salty, bitter and sour taste perception was unaffected, sweet taste perception was reduced whilst umami (savoury) taste perception was enhanced.  I always find the dessert in airplane meals is the worst part of the meal – and now maybe I know why! A possible biological explanation for this may be that the tympanic membrane (ear drum) and taste buds share a bilateral facial nerve.


What makes people jealous?
Finally, I feature a study from the University of California that identifies what makes us experience jealousy – very important to understand in our modern consumer-driven society!  The study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology identifies a strong age-dependent difference. In a study of 18-80 year olds, those under 30 were more likely to feel jealousy compared to the over 50s, and almost all experiences of jealousy were towards individuals of the same gender.  In women appearance was the major factor whilst for men career-related items were the most common cause. What was very interesting for me from a New Zealand perspective, was that any individual that identified as belonging to a wider family or social group experienced less jealousy than those who identified more with a small nuclear family or as a ‘loner’.  Having a mixed European-Asian family myself this is very interesting as I believe asians have a similar concept of whanua to the Polynesians.