Sci-Tech Library Newsletter


Newsletter archive > Holiday 2003 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. Northern Lights Ablaze on Your Computer

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

    Additional discussion of this extraordinary phenomena can be found at 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. How do you go about spotting an aurora? It helps to live some place with dark skies, and, of course, your latitude matters, too. But there are other factors that also come into play. Find hints at Spotting Auroras. If you are lucky enough to live where you can see the Lights, check out hints on photographing the Aurora at Shooting the Aurora Borealis.

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

  2. 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.

    Thursday’s Classroom along with NASA, presents a new rendition of “The Night before Christmas”, and gives instructions for making a Starshine Christmas ornament. Did you know NASA has missions to help keep Santa on time?

    NASA has arranged for Christmas “visitors” to Mars in 2003. If you miss your chance to see Santa in the sky, you might be able to spot the International Space Station. Check the dates and times it will be visible in the sky above your city.

    Want to send a holiday e-postcard with an astronomical theme? There are some astounding ones at Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

    What do you suppose the Martian Santa Claus looks like?

  3. 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 at its Visible Earth site. Might global warming affect this image in future years? Visit the Global Warming: Is It Real?
    and the BBC’s reporting of North Pole ice ‘turns to water’.

    Of course, other planets have north poles, too. Check the photographs of the dust storm at the Martian North Pole. The sun also has a north pole, with some very interesting weather phenomena. Ulysses Forecasts Weather at Sun’s North Pole.

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

    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.

  4. Reindeer

    What would the holiday be without reindeer? The 160,000 animals that make up the Porcupine Caribou Herd range throughout the Northern Yukon and neighboring 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 harassment 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 reindeer and caribou? Want to know more about these animals? How about antlers — can you tell by the antlers if Santa’s team are male or female? How big are Santa’s sleigh-pullers? Find out the answers to these questions and more. (’s FAQs about Caribou, University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Reindeer Facts and FAQs)

    People have been associated with reindeer ever since there were people. See the lovely drinking reindeer done by ice-age people on the wall of a cave. Many people around the world still depend on these creatures as a source of food and as beasts of burden. Their lives are shaped by the lives of the reindeer/caribou herds with which they live. Visit the Siberian reindeer herders and see a lifestyle that is very different from your own. The Gwichin people of the Yukon have always depended on the Caribou herds. The folks of Old Crow show you how they use the Caribou for food, clothing, shelter, tools, art — every part of their daily lives. 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?

    Reindeer don’t live all by themselves up in the Arctic. What about Polar Bears? Learn about these reindeer neighbors at the PBS Great White Bear website. A gallery of stunning pictures is available at Polar Bears International. Did you know that polar bears are not really white? Learn more about polar bear hair at ChemShorts Icy Explorations, Boulevard School’s Polar Bear Fur, and the Alaska Science Forum.

    Most importantly, can reindeer fly? Check on this presentation from the University of Leeds to see what they might look like if they could.

  5. 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. Find more information about the plant and its folklore at Gardeline: Mistletoe. 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”.

    How about growing some crystalline trees as holiday decorations? Try this fun experiment to see how chemical crystals grow.

    Keep your holiday safe. Some holiday decorations can be poisonous.

  6. 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, or StarDate’s Weekly Stargazing Tips.

  7. 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? A BBC article on the Santa-tracking satellites is also worth reading.

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

  8. 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.) It seems as though there are fewer snowy Christmas days than there used to be in many parts of the U.S.

    You can keep track of Santa’s weather at the North Pole Environmental Observatory or the service provided by Environment Canada. Or check it out yourself using the North Pole Webcam.

    Scholastic presents a timeline with information about memorable winter storms in U.S. history. Learn more about winter storms from

    Climate change is with us all the time. The Vikings were able to launch their explorations and settlements in the New World because of a particular climate change that made ice less of an oceanic threat around 1000 A.D. How do scientists monitor climate over thousands of years?

    What does snow look like when you are really close up? Check out the fascinating electron microscope images of snow crystals.

    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! If you can’t photograph snowflakes, you can catch their patterns on glass using hairspray. Environment Canada presents some fun winter activities for you.

    Some ski resorts make artificial snow when there isn’t enough of the “real” stuff around. What’s that stuff?

    Some peoples of the far north make shelters from snow. Learn more (including how to build an igloo) at Igloo — the Traditional Arctic Snow Dome. You will find more information at Inuit Art: Traditional Dwellings.

    To learn more interesting facts about snow, visit the “All About Snow” webpage.

    How about ice? Ever wonder why it is possible to ice skate? Find the answer at the Physics of Ice Skating webpage.

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

  9. 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. What exactly is the solstice and why does it happen?

    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. Watch the solstice on the webcam at the Maeshowe chambered tomb in the Orkneys, 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.

    How much do you know about the solstice now? Take the Solstice Quiz!)

  10. Holiday Fun for Linguists

    The Linguists among us will enjoy the various lexemes for the word “snow” found in one northern dialect. A linguistic discussion of “snow” in Inuit and Yupik can be found at Urban Legends. You can listen to Inuit words and even download the Inuit font. How about the Sami in Europe? You can find links to samples of their music at Scandanavica, and Hollow Ear. I expect Santa knows these languages and dialects well, since his neighbors speak them.

    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 …

  11. 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. Or use chemistry to solve the “Christmas Cookie Mystery”.

    For some obscure reason, chemists more than any other scientists seem to like to compose Christmas 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 the alt.cesium newsgroup 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.


    Watch the video of Koko at Christmas and see what you think. Koko is a gorilla who has been taught sign language since she was a baby. (You will also see Koko’s pet cat, Moe.)


    There is more Christmas Science at Visit the BBC for “Nature Christmas”. Also read the transcript of a live question and answer session with Roger Highsmith, the author of “Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas” and Santa’s Science.

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 12/03.