Thursday, October 1, 2009

A couple of months ago, this desperate cry for help reached us from an anonymous reader in Brno:

Brno, Czech Republic

Dear Uncle T!

I have often felt treated unfairly when being charged an extra fee for my bag on a buss, whereas some exceptionally corpulent human being next to me, a person whose formidable and majestic weight by far exceeded the total weight of my thin body and my bag, and who occupied way more space than me together with my bag carefully placed between my legs so as it should not be in the way for anybody, was not charged a single penny in addition to the regular fair fee.

The question which inevitably poses itself is - is the idea of fair fee based on the notion of weight or the concept of entity? If the latter is the case, well then the halftone heavy mother of the main character from the movie about Gilbert Grape (featuring Johnny Depp), would pay pay the regular charge whereas I still would be charged extra.

The fact that really small children are not charged by some carriers, suggests that it may may be after all the weight and size that is the decisive factor. But then, what kind of approach would be employed by the carrier if two remarkably small midgets occupied two third of just one seat hugging one another pretty tightly? Without any bag? Would they by the virtue of having the total weight equal to that of a thin person be charged just the regular fee?

And quite aside from that what about Siamese twins? And how about two Siamese twins on one bus -a fat one (or maybe ones - that is the question?) and a thin one? Would they be treated equally regardless of the weight differences, and if so would they pay the double price or not?
Or what would be the approach towards a whalelike fatso with split personality?

Questions, questions, questions...
What do you make of all that?
yours You Know Who

After months of pondering, we finally came up with an answer that we hope will satisfy our troubled reader from Brno:

Dear You Know Who,
We cannot help it. We instinctively attach a certain value to obesity. Some cultures – Sub-Saharan, for instance – attach a positive value to it. Men with bellies the size of Bill Gates’ wallet and chins as multiple as the passengers of Noah’s Ark are entitled to their own private army and medicine man. Women with bottoms the size of Zeppeliners are awarded an extra neck ring and given their own talk show to host on national television. Yet again, other cultures – the American, for instance – attach a negative value to obesity. They buy exercise equipment with ridiculous names like Stairmaster and study celebrity diets the way Medieval scholars studied the Bible.


The net result of all these efforts is that Africans (that is, the ones who stayed in Africa, not the ones who left) are as skinny as tooth-picks, whereas America has to be divided into different time zones – if all her citizens stood up to sing the national anthem simultaneously on the 4th of July, there is a distinct possibility that the continental shelf would either fracture or at least start moving, possibly unleashing another earthquake.

Be that as it may. The point is that the concept of obesity is loaded with emotions. That is why the question raised by our reader from Brno can only be settled scientifically. To help us, we invited Ph.D. Vidkun Gandhi, head of the Institute of Cosmological Logistics at the University of Drammen, to formulate an answer to our dear reader. Here is what he wrote (soon to be published as a special supplement to Cosmopolitan’s Dieting Special 2010):

'First, in the name of terminological clarity: By fat, I don’t mean the ‘Oh no, one of my ribs is not visible’-type of fat in vogue with Eastern-European women. By fat, I mean FAT-fat. Like when you visit the zoo and a pair of homeless Rhinos feel like adapting you as their parent. Like when you have to leave one of your relatives in charge of your genitals because your access to them is blocked by your belly. Like when you collapse from exhaustion while shopping in IKEA and the IKEA management tries to market you as their latest water bed model. Like when you don’t wear belts to keep your pants from falling off, but to keep them from bursting. Like... well, why not just say it: Like when you are a citizen of The United States of America.

Example of Eastern-European woman

Why charge fat people more? As pointed out by your frustrated anonymous Brno-reader, passengers are often charged extra for luggage – bags, golf equipment, skis etc: luggage that is external to their body. But what about the luggage some of them carry around with them on a daily basis, like the fat dangling in greasy folds from their body? Is that not also luggage? And while your bag might contain essentials like toothpaste, Prozac or cocaine, what is there in pure fat which is not utterly useless and redundant?

A truly scientistic approach also entails factoring in possible distortions of perception. Notice that everything on an aeroplane is tiny. The seats are tiny, the paper cups and plates are tiny, the toilets are extremely tiny. Now insert a fat person into this setting. Will he not look even fatter aboard a plane than in a setting surrounded by objects closer to his own size – say, in the Grand Canyon or floating around in space somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn?


Newton taught us that gravitation, i.e. what we experience as weight, depends on mass and distance. Einstein improved on his predecessor, adding energy and pressure, both of which add to an object’s (relativistic) mass, increasing its weight. Let us for the sake of argument assume that Mr Fatso’s (inertial) mass is constant. This involves a certain ‘scientific licence’, since fatties have a tendency to consume food non-stop. (This is particularly relevant on long flights, where there is a chance that Mr Fatso, having just invited a few Big Macs (I suppose they serve them on American flights) around to meet his digestive system, will have undergone significant spatial expansion by the time he gets off the plane. But let us leave that aside.)

Now, take distance. The pull of gravity decreases with the distance from the object you gravitate towards, in this case planet earth. In other words, gravity – read, obesity – is less strongly felt on an airplane compared to on a bus or a train. While having a large number of fat people on board might render take-off more difficulty – a phenomenon illustrated by the tendency to throw fat people off a collapsing air balloon – their weight will decrease with the distance from the ground. The upshot of this is that fat people should pay less for plain tickets, more for bus rides. On spaceships and similar devices, no extra charge should be levied on fat people at all.

The 3rd factor on Einstein’s list is energy, which adds to an object’s weight (or ‘relativistic mass’). Energy in this context basically means heat. There is reason to assume that slim people lead a more active – or energetic – life than fat people. Whether in the gym or on the mountain trail, slim people use more energy, thus producing heat, thereby increasing their weight. However, assistant janitor at Zimbabwe Agricultural College Lady Bronisława Churchill and others argue that exactly the opposite is the case. Because fat people enjoy the physical fitness of an asthmatic Blue Whale stranded on a run-down gas station in the Arizona desert, it actually costs them much more energy to, say, get up from the armchair to let in the pizza delivery man. The mere thought of having to cover the 10 meters to the fridge has the fatties sweating like pigs. As a result, Lady Churchill argues, they are actually in a more energetic state than slim people, thus adding to their weight. The jury is still out on this one, so CDHN will abstain from taking sides. But it might be a good idea to at least prohibit fat people from visiting the toilet or making any kind of movement while on the airplane.

Blue Whale

An additional problem that arises when a fat body accumulates heat is the profuse sweating that ensues. The corpulent individual is transformed into a veritable sweat factory hell-bent on drowning its surroundings in a foul flood of body fluids.

In other words, in an ideal world, the fat bastard should be handcuffed, tied to his seat and stripped naked to make sure no extra heat is generated.


Finally, pressure must be taken into account: A jack-in-the-box which is pushed down is heavier than one which is not, because it exerts an unreleased outward pressure. To return to the miniature setting of the airplane; the fatso has to squeeze himself into the aisle, not to mention perform all kinds of acrobatics to get himself seated. If he then makes a single divergence from his crooked position, the entire seat structure will burst; he would leave dead fellow passengers in his wake crushed under the weight of his blubber. In other words, Fat Man is just like a jack-in-the-box, exerting unreleased outward pressure, thus adding to his weight. This suggests the extra charge levied on fat travellers should be inversely proportional to the amount of space available. In settings where space is abundant – say, the National Conference of Polish Clergy against the canonization of John Paul II – the pressure factor can thus be disregarded.

As an extra bonus to your avid reader, I would like to divulge some very recent cosmological discoveries that he or she might find intriguing. At the University of Drammen, I am in charge of the course Elementary Physics 101. One of the first questions I always get from undergraduate students is: Can a human body actually explode from being too fat? Yes, I answer my flock, indeed it can. Once a body reaches its critical mass, i.e. once the proportion between fat and other body mass (muscles, bones etc) exceeds 10³º, it starts to grow uncontrollably, or, to use the correct terminology, it enters an inflationary phase with super-fast, exponential growth of body mass, eventually causing it to explode. This phenomenon is often referred to in Physics textbooks as a Super-Nowak, named after an unusually voluminous 16th century Pole (whose descendants later emigrated to the US) whose body reached such dimensions that it – just before it exploded - covered the entire market square of his local Silesian village. The effects of this cataclysmic event are measurable even today. In 1964, two American astronomists discovered a mysterious residual noise evenly spread out across the universe. Comparing their results to notes in the Racibórz church annals from 1578, where the local vicar reports a ‘hideous, devillish noise as though Satan has descended to earth in the incarnation of a pig undergoing castration’, Prof. Bjørnstjerne Hilton at the Kashubian Institute of Nuclear Physics concluded that this so-called cosmic background radiation actually is the residual effect of Mr Nowak screaming ‘kurwa’ from the top of his lungs as his body detonates.'
Ph.D. Vidkun Gandhi, West Drammen, 29.09.2009

Cosmic background radiation