Sci-Tech Library Newsletter


Newsletter archive > Holiday 2001 Issue

This is a special holiday edition of the Sci-Tech Library Newsletter. I have dusted this off from last year, repaired the old links, and added a few new ones. Enjoy!

There are lots of holiday sites on the WWW, but you’ll find more than just Santa here. These sites were chosen for your enjoyment and are of special interest to the sciences and social sciences, but still, I hope, reflect some of the joys of the season!

  1. Advent is Here

    The Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics has created a special Christmas calendar that shows the 24 genes that help you celebrate the holidays. The calendar was created for 2000, but it is still fun. Check it every day. (Thanks to Caryn S. Wesner-Early)

  2. Northern Lights Ablaze on Your Computer

    For gorgeous photographs of this phenomenon, from both the earth and from space, and for a quick-time movie showing the shimmer, check this site from San Francisco’s famous Exploratorium Museum.

    Additional discussion of this extraordinary phenomena can be found at the Aurora Explained.

    The next few years should be an era of peak activity, with lights possibly showing as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. If you are lucky enough to live where you can see the Lights, check out hints on photographing the Aurora. For the latest auroral news, check out the Discover site.

    Do Santa’s reindeer use the lights as their pathway?

  3. Interplanetary Santa

    Speaking of Santa, is he thinking ahead to future generations that may live on places other than the Earth? Check the exclusive “Interview with Santa”, brought to you by NASA, for the answer to this intriguing question.

  4. The North Pole

    The North Pole isn’t just important because Santa Claus lives there. It is a region worth study for purely scientific and for economic reasons as well. Find out why at the NOAA Arctic Theme Page.

    The Houghton Mars Project isn’t quite at the North Pole, but it’s pretty close … The project is set up to test the equipment and technology (habitation, transportation, life support, recycling, etc.), that may be deployed during a human mission to Mars.

    Ever wonder what the North Pole looks like? NASA presents a satellite picture. Might global warming affect this image in future years?

    Of course, other planets have north poles, too. Check the photographs of the dust storm at the Martian North Pole. What do you suppose the Martian Santa Claus looks like? The sun also has a north pole, with some very interesting weather phenomena.

    Or check the discussions of the various exploration expeditions of the Arctic and introductions to the indigenous peoples of the Arctic around the world on the Arctic Circle page.

    Greenland is close enough to the North Pole to count as possible Santa-land in my book! You can get a fabulous free Yupik Mask Screensaver.

  5. Reindeer and Their Cousins

    What would the holiday be without reindeer? Or at least their close cousins, the caribou. The 160,000 animals that make up the Porcupine Caribou Herd range throughout the Northern Yukon and neighbouring Alaska and Northwest Territories. What are the effects of global climate change on the herd? How do they distribute themselves within their range? What is the influence of snow density, wind, and insect harrassment on them? Such knowledge is essential in building computer models to predict the impact of climate change in the caribou population. Enjoy the gorgeous Slide Show.

    What are the differences between the two species? Find out at the page.

    For more information on these lovely animals, go to the Rangifer tarandus page.

    Many people around the world depend on these creatures as souces of food and as beasts of burden. Their lives are shaped by the lives of the reindeer/caribou herds on which they depend. Visit the Siberian reindeer herders and see a lifestyle that is very different from your own. You can also listen to the National Public Radio story “Caribou Crossings”, by reporter Elizabeth Arnold about the Gwich’in people and caribou. Do you suppose Santa lives like these peoples?

  6. Yule Cat

    Of course there are other animals associated with the holiday season as well, bound by myths and folktales and cultural traditions. For instance, “from Iceland comes the legend of the sinister and gargantuan Yule Cat (Jolakottur), who, it seems, is ready to eat lazy humans. Those who did not help their village to finish all work on the autumn wool by Yule time got a double whammy — they missed out on the Yule reward of a new article of clothing, and they were threatened with becoming sacrifices for the dreaded Yule Cat”. Read about the origins of Yule, Saturnalia, and Solstice celebrations. or about winter festivals from around the world to get an understanding of the ways different societies have celebrated these holidays.

  7. The Holly and the Ivy (and the Mistletoe)

    What would the season be without wreaths and garlands? This site at Texas A&M has gorgeous botanical images — full plant, leaves, flowers, etc. Do a search on Ilex, Hedera, or Loranthaceae.

    The How Stuff Works webpage has lots of information about and pictures of mistletoe. More information about the plant and its folklore is provided by the Univ. of Saskatchewan. Mistletoe grows all over the world, and many of the species are quite different from the quiet plant we are used to seeing hanging above the door at Christmas time.

    But how about other plants? Do you know that you could not have such a merry Christmas without fungi? Read about the “Fungi That Are Necessary for a Merry Christmas”.

    If you are worried about whether your decorations might be poisonous, check the information from the Central Texas Poison Center.

  8. The Star of Bethlehem

    Many planetariums present shows on the Star of Bethlehem at this season, but no matter how hard you try to be careful and well-researched, errors can creep into the presentation. Find out what some of the common errors are in the article by John Mosely, program director at the Griffith Observatory.

    Griffith Observatory also offers a good list of authoritative Star of Bethlehem web resources.

    Can a Roman coin provide clues about this famous star? Inspiration for research can come from anywhere!

    You may not expect something as spectacular as the Star of Bethlehem this year, but to keep track of what you might see in the holiday night sky, check out the weekly report of the Star Gazer, whom you may have heard on various NPR stations.

  9. For the Scrooges Among Us

    For a discussion of the scientific reasons Santa cannot possibly exist, try the Science — Bah Humbug! page by Bill Drennon.

    On the other hand, Fermi Lab’s FERMI NEWS has an interesting article entitled “Santa At Nearly the Speed of Light” that discusses quite cogently the speed at which Santa must travel to accomplish his tasks, and whether traveling at this speed helps enable him to slide down chimneys, as well as other related Santa physics phenomena. More on this important problem of physics is available in a later article, Santa’s World Revisited. (Thanks to Hannah King)

    Besides, if there is no Santa, how can the sophisticated electronics at NORAD successfully track the sleigh progress each year?

    If you are still in doubt, you might try to test the hypothesis scientifically. Build a Santa Trap, for instance.

  10. Will There Be a White Christmas This Year?

    The National Climatic Data Center brings you a region-by-region examination of the climatological chances for a white Christmas in the continental United States. (Only 13% chance for Washington, DC. Sigh.) You can keep track of Santa’s weather at or at the North Pole Environmental Observatory

    What does snow really look like when you are really close up? Check out the fascinating electron microscope images of snow crystals or join the fun by making your own snowflake images (if you have a microscope handy) using these instructions.

    Caltech has a wonderful webpage that includes information about the physics of snow, photographs of snow flakes made to order (designer snow crystals), very detailed information about photographing snow, and more!

    More links to snow resources are available from the National Snow and Ice Data Center World Data Center.

  11. When is Winter, Anyway?

    For the exact time of the winter solstice for any year between 2000 and 2009, check the chart provided by Wolfram. You will also find a discussion of exactly what the solstice is and why it happens.

    The exact time of Solstice was very important to many ancient peoples, who built architectural structures and developed other sophisticated ways to measure it. Explore Ireland’s Newgrange passage tomb. Or take a tour of Chaco Canyon, where the summer solstice took precedence. If you have QuickTime, you can watch a video of summer solstice at Chaco. For more information on archaeoastronomy, visit the Archaeoastronomy Center at the University of Maryland.

  12. Holiday Fun for Linguists

    The Linguists among us will enjoy the various lexemes for the word “snow” found in one Inuit dialect. You can even download the Inuit font and once it is installed on your PC, go to the NASA North Pole Project webpage and follow the instructions to see what the webpage would look like in Inuit.

    Of course, language is more than just vocal and written words. Learn to sign “Merry Christmas”.

    Or check out the Old English-style poem Hrodulf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and marvel at how language changes through time, and yet still follows discernable patterns. If you can’t provide your own translation, just look further down the page …

  13. The Chemistry of Christmas

    Ever wonder what the “smell of Christmas” might look like? Check out the “Swedish Christmas Chemistry” site. You will find chemical formulas for compounds and processes in spices, lutefisk (My older relatives tell me its yummy. The younger ones say nothing.), Christmas trees, candlelight, sparklers, and glogg (spiced wine).

    If you want more information on these chemical structures, check them out in CS Chemfinder. You can search by name or chemical structure (and more) to find detailed structure, melting points, boiling points, specific gravity, and more.

    Kids may enjoy a Christmas Chemistry Lab.

    For some obscure reason, chemists more than any other scientists seem to like to compose Christmas carols and carols. Consider this jewel from the alt.Cesium newsgroup.

    “For non cesiophiles, cesium is the most electropositive element known, and as such has merited its own newsgroup alt.cesium. It has a number of unique properties:

    • It explodes violently on contact with water.
    • It burns with a brilliant blue flame — the name cesium derives from the sky-blue lines in its spectrum.
    • Its hydroxide (what is left after it is finished exploding with water) is the most powerful base known, and will eat through glass.
    • It is used as the central component of cesium-beam clocks, the most accurate time pieces in existence.
    • When consumed over a period of time, it produces a characteristic mania.

    The following songs were posted to <NEWS:ALT.CESIUM> over a period of several weeks.

    SONGS OF CESIUM Translations from the Cesish Translator’s note: The ancient manuscripts from which these songs are derived are fragmentary, and consequently the accuracy of the following translations must be taken with a grain of Cesium Chloride. In places, the translator has filled in gaps to the best of his ability using available knowledge about the culture and traditions of ancient Cesia much of which, is itself controversial … For now, Enjoy, Sing, and Hail Cesium!!! RN

    Oh Cesium (Tune, Oh Christmas tree)
    Oh Cesium, oh Cesium,
    Thy spectrum doth us please-ium.
    Thy sky-blue lines in plasma’s fire,
    Do dreams of icy lakes inspire.
    Oh Cesium, oh Cesium,
    Thy spectrum doth us please-ium.

    Oh Cesium, oh Cesium,
    When held, you never freeze-ium.
    Thy gently smoking silver spheres,
    When dropped in water, please the ears.
    Oh Cesium, oh Cesium,
    When held, you never freeze-ium.

    Oh Cesium, oh Cesium,
    You put us at our ease-ium.
    You tend the seconds of the day,
    So that our watches never stray
    Oh Cesium, oh Cesium,
    You put us at our ease-ium.
    — Songs of Cesium #34”

    At Christmas in 1827, Michael Faraday gave a series of lectures on chemistry. The Wilson Center has updated them. They don’t address Christmas themes, but it just goes to show that the interesting relationship chemists have had with Christmas goes way back in time.

More Traditional Sites:

For fuller coverage of Internet sites on Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, and the other holidays we all enjoy, go to the Yahoo “Holidays” site or follow the Christmas and other holiday links at


Compiled by Stephanie Bianchi, 12/97. Revised 12/01.