With the mix of family, presents, religion, Christmas stories, and lots (and lots) of food, Christmas may not seem the most scientific time. But what better way to get in the festive spirit than to see some of the science behind the most wonderful time of the year?
Speaking of ‘the festive spirit’, science can tell us why some of us love the holiday season so much. When studying MRI scans of self-confessed ‘Christmas-lovers’ compared to ‘Christmas-haters’, scientists have found different activity in different areas of the brain. One such example is the premotor cortex, which is more active in Christmas-lovers, and is also believed to be active when we’re sharing emotional activities with others. Other more active areas included those linked to spirituality and social perception, suggesting that some people are just wired to feel the festive spirit that little bit more than others. The festive season also seems to naturally increase the levels of so-called ‘happy chemicals’ in your brain such as serotonin and dopamine. This can lead to increased levels of pleasure and belonging, meaning the idea of “the festive cheer” might actually be on to something.
Scientists also think that the idea of a reindeer with a glowing red nose might not be too far fetched. On average, reindeer have a 25% higher concentration of blood vessels in their noses compared to humans, which aids them in regulating their body temperature in extreme environments. This means that some individual reindeers may actually appear to have red noses. As well as this, there are many species which show bioluminescence – they ‘glow’. Scientists who study this bioluminescence believe that genetic material from bioluminescent animals, such as jellyfish or fireflies, could have transferred into Rudolph’s DNA and incorporated itself into the genes of his nose. This would then cause Rudolph’s nose to make the protein which causes bioluminescence, and make his nose glow. Astrophysicist Neil De Grasse Tyson also says that red is a much better colour for seeing through foggy nights than any other, so a blue-glowing nose would not be as effective.
One of the Christmas stories which is not so feasible is that of ‘A Christmas Carol’. In the book, Ebenezer Scrooge learns to be more kind-hearted as he is visited by ghosts of Christmas, who show him the misery and anguish he has caused in his life so far. He visits the past and future, which physicists believe may be a problem. Time travel is unfortunately not possible, but it is believed that it’d be easier to go to the future than the past. Einstein provides the Theory of Special Relativity, meaning that time goes slower if you’re moving faster than someone else. Theoretically this means that Scrooge could move to the future if he were travelling at the speed of light, so he could end up in the future whilst the present time continues at normal speed. However, scientists are less convinced by travelling to the past. There would need to be a creation of negative energy to create a loop in space-time, or collapse a small area of the fabric of space to move through and travel into the past. Scientists view both of these explanations as unlikely and almost impossible, so it appears Scrooge may be stuck in the future.
Although some stories may seem far fetched, science shows that some are fortunately more plausible than others.