Saturday, December 23, 2006

Rudolph the inflamed-proboscised reindeer?

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Space-Time Wave

By Simon Singh
New York Times
December 6, 1998

Each year the science journalist Roger Highfield searches for stories with a Christmas angle -- the evolution of gift giving, the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem, how reindeer fly, cloned Christmas trees and anything else that might add flavor to his column in The Daily Telegraph of London. He has now gathered them in a delightful compendium of seasonal science, ''The Physics of Christmas.''

Many might feel that scientific analysis of festive phenomena would destroy the spirit of Christmas. Indeed, this is possible, as demonstrated by the British scientist Richard Dawkins. In his book ''Unweaving the Rainbow,'' he explains that Santa would have to travel faster than the speed of sound to visit all the children in the world in a single night. Hence, as he accelerates to and from each house, his sleigh would break the sound barrier, thereby generating a tremendous shock wave and a sonic boom. Because we never hear this sonic boom, Dawkins claims that Santa does not exist. In fact, he proudly admits to using this argument to disprove the existence of Santa to a 6-year-old.

However, Highfield's approach to the science of Christmas is quite the opposite. Relying on the research of an eminent list 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. For example, the reason we do not hear deafening sonic booms on Christmas Eve is that Santa's sleigh is fitted with an antinoise mechanism. Sound can be thought of as a series of peaks and troughs. The sleigh emits a noise to accompany the sonic boom, such that a peak in the boom is matched by a trough in the emitted noise, and vice versa. The result is that the sonic boom is canceled, and we are left with a silent night.

Despite its title, the book covers a range of scientific topics, including a detailed analysis of the hangover, the explanation behind the strange taste of brussels sprouts and the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree (a straight trunk that slips easily into the stand, limbs angling upward at 45 degrees, a uniform conical shape tapering downward at 40 degrees and good needle retention). There are also chapters covering the sociological and psychological aspects of Christmas.

In 1944 the psychologist Richard Sterba drew some extraordinary parallels between Christmas celebrations and the customs surrounding childbirth: the preparatory excitement, secret anticipation, the last-minute flurry of activity and delivery of a gift, whether it is a baby or a pair of socks. Sterba stated: ''It is not surprising that the presents come down the chimney since the fireplace and chimney signify vulva and vagina in the unconscious. . . . This casts some light on the figure of Santa Claus. He, no doubt, is a father representative.'' According to Sterba, those people who hate Christmas are reminded of their unconscious and unresolved conflicts about childbirth.

One hypothesis with slightly more evidence to back it up is the theory that Christmas has a death-defying effect. It appears that people on the verge of dying can strike a deal with God (or exercise willpower) in order to live for a few extra days and experience a final family gathering. The best evidence for this theory comes from a study of Jewish men who died in the weeks on either side of the Passover festival. The advantage of studying Passover rather than Christmas is that its date is not fixed, and so the effect of the festival can be distinguished from the impact of seasonal factors. The results showed that deaths increased by 25 percent in the week after Passover. The effect rose to 61 percent when Passover fell on a weekend, presumably because family gatherings are larger and the desire to survive even greater. It is interesting to note that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, summoning up the extra strength required to witness the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

In addition to the science, Highfield also examines the history of the festival, from Christmas cards to the origin of Santa. The inspiration for Santa seems to be the generous St. Nicholas, born around A.D. 245 in the town of Patara in what is now Turkey. The story of most relevance tells how Nicholas secretly deposited three bags of gold in a house, so that a father could pay for the marriages of his three daughters. Interestingly, legend says that he sneaked the third bag into the house by dropping it down the chimney, which may have given rise to the modern interpretation of Santa's preferred method of delivering presents.

If St. Nicholas is the original Santa, and his home is in Turkey rather than Lapland, then Highfield suggests that perhaps sunburn is the explanation for Rudolph's red nose. Alternatively, if Rudolph does reside in the Arctic, then parasites may be the cause of his inflamed proboscis. Reindeer noses contain an elaborate concentration of folded membranes, which act as heat exchangers. Inhaled cold air is rapidly warmed as it enters the body, and exhaled air is cooled before leaving. This helps the animal to retain heat, and also reduces moisture loss. In the journal Parasitology Today, Odd Halvorsen of the University of Oslo pointed out that the warm, humid respiratory system provides a comfortable home to many parasites, including 20 that are unique to reindeer. Hence, Halvorsen suggested that Rudolph's celebrated discoloration is the result of parasitic infection.

Inevitably, Highfield includes a few stories that will be familiar to many, such as the mystery of Santa's incredible annual present-giving escapade, but even this chestnut is spiced up with the latest research. In 1994 I worked on a television program that intimated that Santa's exploits were achieved by quantum teleportation. Scientists had only just completed some very tentative experiments, but it seemed that Santa's Arctic laboratory had mastered the technology. Highfield describes this and other similar theories, involving warp-drive sleighs, wormholes and surfing on the crest of the space-time wave, and he adds another, more believable theory.

The mathematician Ian Stewart of Warwick University in England says that ''reindeer have a curious arrangement of gadgetry on top of their heads which we call antlers and naively assume exist for the males to do battle to win females. This is absolute nonsense. The antlers are actually fractal vortex-shedding devices. We are talking not aerodynamics here, but antlaerodynamics.'' This phenomenon arises on the wingtips of a Concorde, but it is only apparent on antlers at very high velocity. However, in order to deliver all the presents, the reindeer are forced to fly at speeds of 6,000 times the speed of sound, far in excess of the speed required for antlers to generate lift.

As a final thought, it is worth noting that the American edition of ''The Physics of Christmas'' omits two chapters included in the British edition. One relates to a peculiarly British delicacy (Christmas pudding), and its omission is understandable. The other concerns the Virgin Birth. I presume the editors wanted to steer clear of controversy, and therefore took the safe option. The result is that they have lost a thought-provoking chapter, one that would only have contributed further to an already enchanting scientific celebration of Christmas.


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