Sci-Tech Library Newsletter


Newsletter archive > Holiday 2004 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. New: Advent is Here

    “An alternative advent calendar for plant and animal enthusiasts everywhere. Wildwalk’s Christmas Calendar launched on 1st December. Every day visitors to the calendar can open a new window, revealing a plant or animal that is associated with Christmas. It’s certainly not all about turkeys! From angel sharks to fairy penguins, elf owls to Christmas tree worms — you’ll be amazed at the variety of wildlife linked to the festive season.”

  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. 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?

  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.

    Thursdays Classroom, along with NASA, present a new rendition of “The Night before Christmas”, and give instructions for making a Starshine Christmas ornament at Christmas Starshine.

    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?

  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? Read about it at Global Warming: Is It Real? or 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.

    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 the Arctic Circlepage.

    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

    What would the holiday be without reindeer, or their North American version, caribou? New: Watch a video on these beautiful deer called “Caribou: Struggle for Survival”. 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.

    Learn about Caribou from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What are the differences between Caribou and Reindeer?

    New: Ever wonder what sounds a reindeer makes?

    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. New: Meet the Nenets of Siberia or New: read about a journey with 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. Also available is a gallery of stunning pictures.

  6. 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. New: What does mistletoe have to do with Christmas? Find out its rich history and folklore, and some biology as well. 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.

    If you are worried about whether your decorations might be poisonous, check the information from Texas A&M.

  7. New: Christmas Trees

    Of all the holiday decorations, none rivals the Christmas tree — pines, firs, spruces, and more … How are these trees grown? At this website you will find some interesting Christmas tree trivia.

    Christmas trees are natural fractals. There are other Christmas items that are fractals, too. You may decorate your tree with strings of lights, but have you ever wondered how these lights work?

  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, or StarDate.

  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 and NASA successfully track the sleigh progress each year?

    New: There is a lot of debate on this topic, as you can imagine. Sample some of the discussions and draw your own conclusions.

    If you are still in doubt, you might try to test the hypothesis scientifically — this is the way real science is done. Build a Santa Trap for instance. Or you can just decide that science isn’t yet ready to answer this question, and leave a plate of cookies (for Santa) and apples (for the reindeer) — that’s what I do!

  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.) Does global warming effect these chances? USAToday discussed this question a few years ago.

    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? See Determining the Climate Record or NOVA’s Stories in the Ice

    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. Here are directions for this and other snow science activities.

    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 about snow houses at Traditional Dwellings: Igloos. New: Can snow insulate well enough to keep you from freezing to death?

    New: Snow can be very dangerous, particularly when it creates an avalanche. Learn snow survival skills from NOVA’s discussion of Alaska’s Mt. Denali.

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

    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. 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.

  12. New: Candles

    We don’t put candles on our Christmas trees like they did in the old days, but there are still plenty of candles used around this time of year, in Advent wreaths, in candlelight services, and in menorahs, to name a few places. Did you ever wonder how candles work? Could you burn candles in a spaceship? How do those trick candles work, that you can’t blow out? Here is a site that will tell you more about the science of candles.

    Michael Faraday gave a Christmas lecture on candles.

  13. Holiday Fun for Linguists

    The Linguists among us will enjoy the various lexemes for the word “snow” found in one northern dialect. Do the Inuit really have over 100 words for snow? Well, this simple question is not easy to answer … See University of Toronto: Ask Us and the Language Log. You can download the Inuit font (if you are using Windows) 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.

    Download the Inuit font for your PC.

    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 …

  14. New: Christmas Economics

    There is no doubt that the cost of Christmas has a major economic impact. The folks at PNC Bank have been keeping track of the price trends in their “Christmas Price Index” (CPI) for the last 20 years. If you have a true love this Christmas, better take out a loan …

  15. The Chemistry of Christmas

    Kids may enjoy a Christmas Chemistry Lab. Or use chemistry to solve the “Christmas Cookie Mystery

    For some obscure reason, chemists and other scientists seem to like to compose Christmas carols. See Science Jokes: Chemistry Poetry, Iona Prep Physics Resources, Chemistry Carols and Physics Carols.

    At Christmas in 1827, Michael Faraday gave a series of lectures on chemistry. The Wilson Center has updated them. These lectures show that the interesting relationship chemists have had with Christmas goes way back in time. The Royal Institution still hosts Christmas lectures today, as do many other institutions.

  16. Can Animals Enjoy Christmas?

    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.) New: Some zookeepers are making a white Christmas possible for their polar bears in Australia. They think the bears need snow in order to avoid developing behavior problems.

  17. New: Turkey

    Of course you need chemistry for your Christmas cooking, but you need engineering, too. When you cook a turkey, you have to get the heat transfer right. The Engineer Guy can tell you all about this problem.

    Wild turkeys are interesting birds. They make a variety of sounds and calls. See the National Wild Turkey Federation, TheJump.Net Turkey Country or the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas. Some people make their own “instruments” for imitating turkeys (parental help advised). Make a pine-cone turkey to decorate your house this Christmas, in honor of these interesting birds. Get instructions from Kaboose or Enchanted Learning.

  18. New: Additional Christmas Science

    There is more science in Christmas than can possibly be listed in a single place. Enjoy the links on these pages as well! Hypography Enjoy Christmas.

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 the Christmas sites chosen by “Librarian’s Index to the Internet” or follow the Christmas and other holiday links at


Compiled by Stephanie Bianchi, 12/97. Revised 12/04.