Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey

The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey

4.3 3
by Roger Highfield

See All Formats & Editions



CAN REINDEER FLY? WHY IS SANTA CLAUS FAT? COULD SCIENTISTS CLONE THE PERFECT CHRISTMAS TREE? WAS THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM REALLY A COMET? WHY IS RUDOLPH'S NOSE RED? HOW DOES SANTA MANAGE TO DELIVER PRESENTS TO AN ESTIMATED 842 MILLION HOUSEHOLDS IN A SINGLE NIGHT? WHAT COULD WE DO TO GUARANTEE A WHITE CHRISTMAS EVERY YEAR? These are among the questions explored in an irresistibly witty book that illuminates the cherished rituals, legends, and icons of Christmas from a unique and fascinating perspective: science.

Editorial Reviews

Jennifer Reese

Imagine sitting down to Christmas dinner -- roast bird, glittering tree, stockings hung by the chimney with care -- when your dinner partner gestures to the turkey thigh on your plate. Did you know, he asks, that the leg meat is dark because it contains myoglobin, an oxygen-storing molecule that a turkey needs in its muscular legs but not in its lazy breast? Game birds, on the other hand "spend more time on the wing, and their breast meat may be as dark as their drumsticks, seasoned with myoglobin throughout."

Oh yes, he goes on, and that dreaded plum pudding is a descendant of "frumenty, a type of porridge made from hulled wheat spiced and boiled in milk," while the brandy sauce that makes it edible is of "huge interest to surface scientists" because of the unusual way the molecules bind together. As for the role of the chimney at Christmas, some psychologists believe it is a metaphor for the vagina: One reason people become depressed at Christmas may be that Santa's descent revives memories of their birth traumas. If this is your idea of great holiday chitchat, Roger Highfield, the science editor at London's Daily Telegraph, has written the book for you. The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey is a collection of short, bright essays that attempt to explain by means of science -- very broadly defined to include anthropology, psychology and sociology as well chemistry and biology -- all the wacky things people do during the holidays. No subject is too small for Highfield's enthusiastic scrutiny. He devotes one essay to the reasons Brussels sprouts are bitter; another to the architecture of snowflakes; yet another to the biology of reindeer.

Sampled in small doses, these essays can be fascinating. You may have some dim notion that Santa Claus harks back to St. Nicholas, a holy man from the coast of Turkey. It is less well known that some academics posit that his suit is red because people liked to ingest psychedelic toadstools -- "the recreational and ritualistic drug of choice in parts of northern Europe before vodka was imported from the East." Santa's vivid robes, Highfield writes, are thought by some to "honor the red-and-white dot color scheme of this potent mind-altering mushroom." It will be a long time before I forget that the Lapps of northern Scandinavia -- who pulverize reindeer horns and market the stuff as an aphrodisiac -- actually have a genetic mutation rendering some of the men "unusually virile." Or that a cancer research organization has found that Christmas is the only meal of the year at which most British children eat sufficient amounts of vegetables.

But read more than one or two of Highfield's pieces at a time, and you may find yourself reaching anxiously for another egg nog. Highfield is an engaging writer, with an obvious and endearing passion for his subject. But what he has assembled in this pretty volume is an intimidating mountain of random scientific trivia. Taken as a whole, it is more exhausting than explanatory. Like Christmas cheer -- "the fermentation of fruit and grain by the activity of fungi called yeasts" -- The Physics of Christmas is best enjoyed in moderation. -- Salon

Surveying a range of scientific fields' answers to Christmas puzzlers, the author argues that, among other things, Rudolph's red nose stems from a parasitical infection, the star of Bethlehem may have been the conjunction of planets, and Santa relies on a superconducting quantum interference device to interpret the magnetic brainwaves of bad and good children. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Simon Singh
Relying on the research of . . .scholars from around the world, he endeavors to enrich our understanding of everything associated with the holiday, providing genuine insights as well as fanciful speculation. . . .the book covers a range of scientific topics, including. . .the explanation behind the strange taste of brussels sprouts and the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. . . -- The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.71(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas.
Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz

    Christmas is a time for the crunch of snow, spiced wine, and tinseled trees. Christmas is a time for giving, meeting friends, and feasting. Christmas is a time for carols, family gatherings, gaudy greeting cards, and all the jollity of the seasonal spirit. Christmas is also a time for science.

    Chemists are hard at work in the Christmas kitchen. Experts on thermodynamics have drafted equations to help us cook turkeys to perfection, scanners have scrutinized steaming plum puddings, and pharmacologists have traced the baroque metabolic pathways of the brain to explain why chocolates can be so addictive.

    Meteorologists study every aspect of the snow cycle that provides a seasonal sprinkling, from the seeding of an ice crystal high in the sky to the traces of past Christmases buried deep in the snowpack.

    Climatologists are plundering this record to help predict white Christmases far into the future. A handful are even concocting outlandish schemes to guarantee that each and every Christmas is white.

    Psychologists tease out the hidden agenda of the Christmas card and what it reveals about our social status. The same goes for presents. The price, the nature of the gift, and even the way it is wrapped say a great deal about the giver and his or her relationship with the recipient. All the while, anthropologists hunt for the foundation of the celebration in pagan rituals that took place before the birth of Christ, during long winter nights when our ancestors feared that the sun would never return.

    The origins of the holiday in the darkness of prehistory emphasize perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Christmas: everyone's invited. The seasonal message of hope and charity is a message for all -- Christians, Jews, Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, and, yes, even scientists and engineers.

    I have been investigating the science of Christmas for more than a decade. When I first began to take an interest in the subject, I was unprepared for the breadth and depth of the insights that would eventually emerge. Take those flying reindeer, Santa's red and white color scheme, and his jolly disposition, for example. They are all probably linked to the use of a hallucinogenic toadstool in ancient rituals.

    I can add that Santa was born with a genetic propensity to become obese and now suffers from diabetes. He does not live at the North Pole, preferring the warmth of an island off the coast of Turkey. There, panting at his side, you will find Rosie -- not Rudolph -- the reindeer.

    I was at first puzzled by how Santa could fly in any weather, circle the globe on Christmas Eve, carry millions and millions of presents, and make all those rooftop landings with pinpoint accuracy. The answer lies in his unprecedented research resources and expertise across a range of fields, spanning genetic engineering, computing, nanotechnology, and quantum gravity.

    My experience of writing this book undermines the idea that the materialist insights of science destroy our capacity to wonder, leaving the world a more boring and predictable place. For me, the very reverse is true. I can still remember the day when, as a child, I first became convinced that Santa did not exist. Now, by refracting the Santa myth through the prism of science, he seems more real than ever.

    I believe that science and technology can even shed a little light on a deeper question: where did Christmas come from in the first place? Peel back the wallpaper of centuries, and you will find that the festival is an amalgam of influences -- German, Dutch, English, American, and other traditions, both religious and pagan -- that emerged over the millennia.

    Even today, the traditional Christmas hoopla is far from a homogeneous phenomenon, taking place alongside Kwanzaa, an African-American harvest holiday, and the eight-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. Together they constitute the annual celebration.

    Part of the reason winter festivities went global can be found 150 years ago, at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. It was then that "Christ's Mass" (Cristes maesse in Old English), the church service that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, along with a wealth of other traditions, entered the scientific age of mass communications, transport, and other technologies.

    This collision between ancient tradition and the age of science and technology was particularly significant in Victorian Britain, where, during a single decade, there was a striking coincidence of events of significance for science, the annual celebrations, and this book.

    The 1840s saw a dizzying rate of change in society due to efforts across a proliferating range of disciplines. In the world of science, there were Darwin's ideas on natural selection, Joule's work on thermodynamics, and Faraday's studies of magnetism, light, and electricity.

    In the sister disciplines of engineering and technology, there were developments in factories, machine tools, and information technology. Babbage was hard at work on his difference engine, and a web of telegraph lines spread across the nation. All the while the old certainties seemed to have been squashed flat by the steam hammer, steamboat, and steam train. The resulting turmoil in society made the traditional Christmas message of charity more relevant than ever.

    Emerging communications technologies, from speedy railways to the telegraph, paved the way for that message to be disseminated and homogenized for mass consumption, forging much of what we think of today as the traditional festivities.

    The tumultuous 1840s also saw an important token of the rising influence of science: the birth of a specific label for the burgeoning army of individuals at work in this field. William Whewell, a polymath who was a Fellow of the Royal Society, coined the word scientist in earnest in his two-volume book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. The word was of dubious legitimacy in philological terms, a hybrid of Latin and Greek, and was attacked (wrongly) as "an American barbarous trisyllable." But the pressure to put a name to this increasingly influential group was overwhelming.

    That same decade saw the introduction to Britain of one component of the German Christmas that remains very much a part of the celebrations today. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert set up a Christmas tree for the first time in Windsor Castle in 1840. She recorded that this German custom quite affected dear Albert, who turned pale and had tears in his eyes! Eight years later they appeared beside the tree in the Illustrated London News, one of the magazines established that decade to exploit advances in illustration technology. This would become one of the most famous nineteenth-century Christmas scenes of all.

    At the same time that scientist was born and Albert gazed upon his tree, an eminent and extraordinary individual, Henry Cole, decided to reduce the burden of writing Christmas greetings letters by taking advantage of another development he had had a hand in: the introduction of the penny post in 1840.

    His invention, the first Christmas card, was published in 1843 and cost a shilling, the equivalent of a day's wages for a laborer. After two decades the price fell dramatically thanks to one of the technological innovations of the day, cheap color lithography, and Christmas cards entered the mass market.

    Cole regarded the card as the folk art of the Industrial Revolution, and it ultimately became the greatest popularizer of now-standard Christmas iconography, with designs ranging from bizarre characters with pudding heads to mannequins in period costume, as well as the more conventional mistletoe, robins, holly, and fireside scenes. Not only were the cards printed on paper, but they were also gilded, frosted, and dressed with satin or fringed silk. Some were even made to squeak.

    Through the evolution of one of the card's most familiar characters, it is possible, in the wake of the pioneering contributions of Cole, Prince Albert, and Whewell, to trace the influence of scientists, engineers, and technologists on our way of life. I am, of course, referring to the many depictions of that fat man with the white beard.

    A silk-fringed card published in 1888 reveals how, by then, Santa had resorted to the latest communications technology to improve links with his market. The figure shown on the card seems to be engaged in what can only be described as a conference call, listening to the simultaneous demands for presents from an assortment of children. Only the previous decade, Alexander Graham Bell had patented the telephone that made it all possible.

    By the 1890s Santa had decided to give up his sleigh and reindeer, preferring to haul his gifts around by "the new monstrosity from France," the automobile. As a result of the development of the internal combustion engine, the silent night, holy night now throbs to the sound of traffic. The stillness of the snowy landscape shown on so many Christmas cards is marred by the groan of the snowplow and the susurrus of chains on wheels. The search for the Bethlehem star is now obscured by a haze of photochemical smog.

    Another newfangled device, the wireless, appears on one 1929 Christmas card, which features a Santa apparently mesmerized by the crackling message it is receiving over the ether: "You're in my Christmas circuit / And on the waves of thought / A Happy Christmas and New Year / To you is gladly brought." Radio would become the first mass medium to reinforce the tendency for Christmas to be a festival held behind closed doors.

    When Santa reached for a cool soda pop in a Coca-Cola advertisement that appeared during the Christmas season of 1937, he was again a technological pioneer. The source of his refreshment was a refrigerator, even though iceboxes were still being used by most American households that year.

    Santa can now be found in cyberspace. The last time I checked, there were hundreds of Santa home pages for children's e-mail. Digitized images of Santa now scud about the web of international computer networks every Christmas.

    One day these images may even supplant the traditional Christmas card. However, I believe that an e-mailed Santa, spouting digital "ho, hos" and seasonal greetings, would still honor the spirit in which Henry Cole first dreamed up the card -- as a practical way to marry mass communications and art.

    Cole would be amazed and gratified by the extent to which his little invention has caught on today. The significance of the 1840s does not end there, however. As Cole sent out his first cards, the greatest and most influential of all Christmas books made its first appearance in a crimson and gold binding.

    A Christmas Carol was published by Chapman and Hall on December 19, 1843. By Christmas Eve it had sold six thousand copies, the most successful publication that season. Within two months eight pirated theatrical productions had been staged.

    The genesis of this work of popular genius dates back to around 1840 and Dickens's correspondence with the philanthropist Lord Ashley. Dickens was horrified by the impact on society of the age of machines, notably the appalling conditions endured by children working in coal mines and factories. He started work on the book to make a sledgehammer blow against these evils of the industrial age.

    One newspaper described the book as "sublime." Thackeray said that it was a "national benefit." Lord Jeffrey told Dickens that it had "prompted more positive acts of beneficence than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals in Christendom since Christmas 1842."

    Thus the 1840s saw a striking convergence: the first scientist, the tree, the card, and the Christmas book to top all Christmas books. A century and a half later, science is still altering the very nature and fabric of the celebrations through the introduction of new technology, whether cloned Christmas trees, the Internet, or those infuriating cards that play carols over and over again.

    And so on to the science of Christmas.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book contains many intresting facts and ideas on how physics applies to our everday life at this joyfull season. This makes a great read and I hope to see more titles in this series.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago