The Science of Christmas
by Roger Highfield
‘The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second . . . .’
‘Santa meanwhile will be subjected to forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity.’
In this delightful little book, Dr Roger Highfield, one-time editor of the magazine New Scientist, whips up tradition with some real science for a whimsical Christmas feast. Beginning with a chapter entitled The Bethlehem Star, Dr Highfield takes us on a journey through time and space to discover the origins of the customs and rituals we take for granted. From food, spirits, candles and snow to those flying reindeer, he takes us beyond the familiar into the world of relativity, nanotechnology, fractal geometry and genetics.
‘These pagan midwinter festivals remained popular centuries after Christ was born and early Christians were reluctant to relinquish them.’
In Can Reindeer Fly? we learn a lot of interesting facts about Father Christmas (Santa Claus) and his origins. The original St Nicholas is unlikely to have seen either snow or reindeer. Many of the images on our cards and decorations today – the secular Santa – have their beginnings as recently as the late 19th century, while the prototype fat, jolly, bearded and red-suited philanthropist is an invention of the Coca Cola Company.
Chapter 2 discusses miracles and parthenogenesis, Chapter 4 gluttony and obesity, Chapter 7 snow and meteorology. Elsewhere, Dr Highfield invites us to explore the psychology of shopping and giving presents, as well as the power of marketing.
‘Every 100 grams of chocolate contains up to 660 milligrams of phenylethylamine, a chemical relative of amphetamines that has been shown to produce feelings of wellbeing and alertness.’
The book is not without its dire warnings of the dangers of over-indulgence in fatty foods and alcohol. It treats other less welcome effects of the festive season, such as SAD and suicide very seriously indeed. The science is instructive and its involvement with our Christmas customs and traditions sometimes unexpected. The author’s treatment of the religious element is careful and respectful. He doesn’t ignore countries and cultures not founded on the principles of Christianity; non-Christians will find much to inform and entertain here too. For, as he points out, much of the science of Christmas might equally be applied to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule or Saturnalia.
Can Reindeer Fly? is probably best not tackled with a Christmas hangover; it is a much too serious read for that. However, as science wrapped in gift paper, or served with turkey and stuffing, it offers much festive fun for scientist and non-scientist alike.
As for Rudolph, whose fame rests on the popular Gene Autry song of 1949, “he” was in all probability a girl!
I would like to wish all my readers and followers, wherever you are, and whatever you believe, a very happy Christmas and many good things in the year to follow!