Jay Ingram answers some of life's great mysteries in new book, The Science of Why

Alberta-based journalist reveals why yawning is contagious and the reason birds fly in a V-formation

Posted: November 01, 2016

Jay Ingram is a former broadcaster and the author of 10 books, including The Science of Why: Answers to Questions About the World Around Us. (UBC Okanagan)

Have you ever stopped to ponder some of life's great mysteries?

Such as — why does time seem to speed up as we age? Or, why do the leaves change colour in fall?


Jay Ingram took a shot at answering some of those questions in his new book, The Science of Why: Answers to Questions About the World Around Us.

The former host of CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks lives in Bragg Creek, Alta. and stopped by our Calgary studio to tell us more.

The following is an edited version of his interview with the Calgary Eyeopener's David Gray:

Q: Everyone who has little kids is familiar with the tug on the pant leg, that nagging question all the time — 'Why?' Is it just in us, as humans, to ask that question?

I think so and I also think it's not restricted to kids. I think that maybe as you ease into adulthood you're too busy with other stuff and maybe don't pause to reflect on that sort of thing.

But the questions that I've addressed in this book — many of them would be asked by adults and some of them are questions that I find interesting but I've never actually heard anybody ask.

Q: Why is yawning contagious?

It's all powerful. Even the fact that you just raised the topic has instigated some of your listeners to to yawn. Or at least have the strong desire to yawn.

We showed that on Quirks & Quarks many, many years ago. And if you see a yawning face but the whole mouth has been blacked out so all see are the wrinkles around the eyes — you will start to yawn. So it's a strong, strong signal.

Here's the most intriguing piece of research: kids three to four years old have not yet developed full empathy. They think that what they're thinking is what everybody else is thinking. And it's only when they turn, say, roughly four to five that they start to understand that you could be thinking something different than they think. Or that you could know something different. That's when yawns start to become contagious. So it actually activates parts of the brain that are linked to empathy, not the parts of the brain that are involved in a spontaneous yawn.

Q; Why do house cats seem disdainful of their owners?

I wrote about this in the book but I've started to have a different idea, but it's totally speculative. Not being a practicing scientist — I can do that. And that is, the origin of dogs from wolves and how they came to be our companions is a very different story from the origins of cats.

(Simon & Schuster Canada)

Middle Eastern wild cats started to become domesticated when agriculture first appeared.

Agriculture equals stores of grain, equals rats and mice... equals cats.

So you see, the cat can still be very independent in that situation. Whereas dogs insinuated themselves into the fringes of human culture to share scraps and things like that. The friendlier the dog, the more likely it was to get meat. Whereas with the cats, the humans would have seen right away it's a benefit that they're killing rats. So I think it goes all the way back to that.

Q: Why do geese fly in a V-formation?

For aerodynamic support. You've got little vortexes of air spilling off the wings of the lead goose and if you can position yourself correctly, you can ride those — and the most efficient way to do those is a V. And you can calculate mathematically the angle of the V, the exact positioning of the birds. And this was suspected decades ago. But until very recently, it was hard to get images of geese in V's because they're always at an angle, you don't know how far away they are and they shift around.

But in Europe, they were trying to reintroduce a kind of Ibis [a type of bird] and they bred them in captivity, taught them to follow an ultralight [aircraft] 'cause they wanted to show them migration root. So, it was perfect. They had these birds that would fly right beside an ultralight. They could instrument them to gage the forces and energy expenditure and they showed that these Ibises are constantly adjusting themselves to get the greatest advantage.

Jay Ingram was the host of CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks from 1979 to 1992.

Q: Why have you made your life's work explaining science to others in a way they can understand?

Just because of that last answer. Is that not a cool thing that geese actually gaining an aerodynamic advantage by flying in V's? And little birds, like sparrows, you never see them in a V because there's just not enough air being kicked off their wings to make it worthwhile.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener