Holmium Holmium Holmium! To celebrate the festive season, we’re going to take a look at a few areas of research which focus on answering some fascinating questions about this special time of year. So pull up a lab stool, fill your conical flasks with some lovely eggnog, and enjoy this insight into the science of Christmas!

Why is Rudolph’s nose red?

In 2012, Professor Can Ince et al of the University Medical Centre at Rotterdam investigated the colour of the most famous reindeer of them all’s nose. The study used 6 human volunteers as well as 2 adult reindeer to help aid the study. They looked into how the blood vessels of humans and reindeer are similar and found they were very alike. The conclusion they arrived at was Rudolph’s nose has a larger amount of blood vessels enriched with red blood cells. These protect the nose from becoming frozen on cold nights and also regulate brain temperature of the reindeer.

Could Santa’s sleigh deliver all of the presents on Christmas night?

North Carolina State University’s Dr Larry Silverberg conducted research to find out how Santa and his sleigh could be modified to make the journey. The main problem with Santa Claus making a successful trip, delivering presents around the world in a single night, is the speed his sleigh and reindeer would have to reach. Dr Silverberg theorizes the sleigh travelling at relativistic speeds (a large fraction of the speed of light) from a person’s point of view, whilst from Santa’s point of view his sleigh would be travelling around 100 mph in order to manoeuver it easier. To achieve these speeds, he even suggests the reindeer should each have a jetpack strapped to their backs propelling them across the sky.

With over 7 billion people in the world, it is fair to say the sack full of presents would be extremely heavy to carry around all night, but once again Dr Silverberg has a solution. The sack is filled with chimney soot particles and once activated are converted into presents via a nano-sized toymaker!

The traditional sleigh has a few design problems that could cause it to become slow whilst out on delivery. However, with some clever additions from the American scientist, it could be even faster. A nano-structured skin is suggested that has empty nanotubes with holes which suck air towards the sleigh and reduces the drag force. Finally, flexible patches of titanium alloy are added to the sides to change their shape in different conditions to improve the aerodynamics, and the headlights are replaced with laser sensors which scan weather conditions and provide the optimal route through the snowy skies.

What makes Christmas crackers bang?

As part of their research into “the five senses of Christmas”, Derek Jackson and Andrew Dicks of the University of Toronto looked into the sound a Christmas cracker makes. The traditional “snap” comes from the unstable molecule silver fulminate (AgCNO). Silver fulminate reacts when it is disturbed by another object, even the tickling of a feather is sometimes enough to ignite the explosive. This is the reason behind the small piece of paper surrounding the cracker inside which rubs just enough against the fulminate to explode it causing the Christmassy bang.

Why do Brussels Sprouts taste bitter?

They are a staple vegetable of any traditional Christmas dinner, but brussels sprouts are sometimes the pantomime villain of the meal which could be due to their bitter taste. This bitterness is due to a class of molecules called glucosinolates which contain sulphur functional groups. When broken down in the body, they produce a bitter-tasting chemical (PTC) which only around 70% of people can experience, this is due to genetics. Thus the next time you eat brussels sprouts, take note of whether they taste bitter, as the only people who can taste the bitterness of the cruciferous vegetable are people who have the so-called “brussels sprout gene”.

Luke Norman

Image by JD Hancock via Flickr

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