We'll be back in a few days with heftier fare, but for now -- 'well, 'tis the season of scientific silliness, when there is a flurry of light-hearted press releases and news stories relating to the science of Christmas. Mostly these are related to the Santa Claus legend: tongue-in-cheek analyses of how the Big Red One might be able to accomplish his annual mission of delivering prezzies to children all over the globe.
There's this curmudgeonly take, for instance, concluding that the job would have killed Santa long ago ("Downer!" chants Jen-Luc Piquant). Back in 1998, scientists at Fermilab announced a solution to the knotty problem of how Santa gets down the chimney (hint: it's related to special relativity and what happens to a body traveling near the speed of light). Physicist Michio Kaku has offered brief commentary on how things like comets, MagLev technology and teleportation might be involved, while last year, Chad of Uncertain Principles gave a detailed explanation of why Santa Claus must be a physicist, and An American Physics Student in England promised Santa he'd be an extra-good grad student if the elves could only give him an International Linear Collider fo Christmas. Heck, Roger Highfield wrote an entire book on the subject, The Physics of Christmas (and it's a really fun read).
The latest addition to the genre comes from AIP's Inside Science News Service, reporting on the "findings" of Larry Silverberg, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at North Carolina State University. Silverberg maintains that Santa and his elves probably have "advanced knowledge of electromagnetic waves, the space/time continuum, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and computer science."
How does Santa know who's been naughty or nice? Silverberg hypothesizes that Santa uses an advanced "listening antenna" involving components commonly used in cell phones and EKGs, then uses a signal processing system to filer the raw data. This gives Santa the clues he needs to determine who gets gifts because they were good, where they live, and (good news to that American grad student in England) what they want for Christmas. And what about the reindeer and the challenge of delivering millions of large and heavy toys? Per Silverberg (who dares to dream big with his speculations):
"His reindeer -- genetically bred to fly, balance on rooftops and see well in the dark -- don't actually pull a sleigh loaded down with toys. Instead, each house becomes Santa's workshop as he utilizes a nano-toymaker to fabricate toys inside the children's homes. The presents are grown on the spot, as the nano-toymaker creates -- atom by atom -- toys out of snow and soot, much like DNA can command the growth of organic materials like tissues and body parts."
And since we're on the subject of annual holiday traditions: Everyone has their favorite Christmas programming, from It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story ("You'll poke your eye out!"), to all those timeless animated classics featuring Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, Santa and his elves, and so forth. My personal favorites include A Nightmare Before Christmas (great, ghoulish fun!) and the animated classic, The Year Without a Santa Claus -- the latter proved quite controversial and didn't air for several years because of the dancing, devilish minions of the Heat Miser, brother to the Snow Miser. (The premise is the two have been feuding for years, and their sibling rivalry is the reason it only snows in certain parts of the globe.) Fortunately, sanity prevailed eventually as everyone lightened up and realized there was nothing inherently satanic about the cartoon, so we can now sing along with the catchy little ditties crooned by the Miser brothers.
If singing along with the Miser brothers isn't your holiday cup of tea, try this collection of physics-themed Christmas carols, including future classics like "Oh Physics Problem Set of Mine -- to the tune of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" --," God Rest Ye Merry Physicists", "The 12 Days of Physics", and my personal favorite, "Phrosty the Photon." ("Phrosty the Photon was quite a quantum sight/With a zero mass and an endless life/and a speed approching light....")
But no Christmas tale has been told so often as Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, sometimes told straight, sometimes served up with a twist. Naturally, we at the cocktail party prefer the tale with a twist, and the brilliant Rowan Atkinson & Co. provided the best example of that with the satirical Blackadder's Christmas Carol, which turns Dickens' entire treacly message completely on its head. We offer the opening 10 minutes below for your Christmas Eve viewing pleasure.
As for New Year's Eve, well, in my opinion there's no better movie to mark that occasion than The Hudsucker Proxy.