Sci-Tech Library Newsletter


Newsletter archive > Holiday 2007

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 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 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 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.

    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” for the answer to this intriguing question.

    [New] Want to send a holiday card with an astronomical theme? These beautiful cards incorporate photos from the Hubble telescope, and can be printed from your home computer. Or send an e-card from the gorgeous collection brought to you from Harvard’s Chandra website.

    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.

    Go along on a radio expedition to the North Pole, and learn what draws people to do science in this hostile environment.

    [New] Many people are concerned about the effects of global climate change. This year the ice was definitely thinner, and that makes a lot of the science harder to accomplish.

    Of course, this time of year the North Pole is in darkness, so Santa is assured of secrecy for his big day. NOAA explains how the solstices work in Santaland.

    [New] Your compass, as you know, points north — unless you actually live near the North Pole. Compasses actually point toward the Magnetic North Pole rather than toward the Geographic North Pole. Read about the difference and the effects on compasses.

    Ever wonder what the North Pole looks like? NASA presents a satellite picture.

    Of course, other planets have north poles, too. [New] NASA provides us with the first 3-D picture of the Martian North Pole, and it is astounding. 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 Circle page. [New] Or listen to “The Last Imaginary Place: a Human History of the Arctic World”, an interview with Robert McGhee, Curator of Arctic Archeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

    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. [New] See more great Yupik masks and the people who make them.

  4. Reindeer

    What would the holiday be without reindeer, or their North American version, caribou? 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?

    Ever wonder what sounds a reindeer makes?

    Most importantly, can reindeer really fly? Check this site from the University of Leeds for a definitive discussion and some amazing pictures. You might want to ponder the genetics of Rudolph and his red nose.

    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. Does it look like modern snow art? 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. Meet the Nenets and [New] Eveny of Siberia to see a lifestyle that is very different from your own. [New] Read and hear about the Mongolian reindeer herders. Join the Sami on a reindeer roundup. Greenpeace offers a pacman-type game helping the Sami save their forests and herd their reindeer — click on the orange dot over Scandinavia. The Gwich’in people of the Yukon have always depended on the Caribou herds. Listen to an NPR story “Following the Porcupine Herd”. You can also listen to the National Public Radio story “Caribou Crossings,” by reporter Elizabeth Arnold about the Gwich’in people and caribou. How is climate change affecting people like the Gwich’in? 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. [New] The Smithsonian offers a fun matching game of Arctic wildlife. Wonderful movies and images of polar bears in action are available from ArkIve. These take awhile to load, but are certainly worth it — mother bears suckling their young, bears swimming underwater, and more. Or download the video clips for free and watch them again and again.

  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 Loranthaceae.

    The holly is surrounded by myths and legends. The Celts believed that “King Holly” triumphed over “King Oak” every year at solstice. It is also prominent in Christian and Asian mythology. Holly is also a useful and beautiful landscape tree, particularly good for sheltering small animals and birds.

    The How Stuff Works webpage has lots of information about and pictures of mistletoe. 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? Or crystal snowflakes? Try these fun experiments to see how chemical crystals grow.

    If you are worried about whether your decorations might be poisonous, check this information from the California Poison Action Line.

  6. Christmas Trees

    Of all the holiday decorations, none rivals the Christmas tree — pines, firs, spruces, and more … At this website you will find some interesting Christmas tree trivia. Read more at this site from How Stuff Works.

    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? The custom of bringing greens into the house goes far back in time as people sought symbols of renewal.

    It takes a lot of research to develop good Christmas trees. Read about all the factors that scientists must consider — disease resistance, cloning, genetic engineering …

    Christmas trees are recyclable. Consumers can locate the nearest recycling program by visiting the National Christmas Tree Association or calling 1-877-EARTH911. You can even recycle your Christmas tree yourself. There are about 500,000 acres in production for growing Christmas Trees in the U.S. Each acre provides the daily oxygen requirements of 18 people and helps a little bit to counteract global warming.

  7. 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. [New] Mosely’s information can also be viewed with animations.

    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.

  8. Winter Inventions

    Inventors can be inspired by winter, too. The US Patent and Trademark Office brings us a Winter Carnival of wacky and wonderful inventions.

  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. Are Santa and his flying reindeer just an hallucination? See Santa and Hallucinogenic Mushrooms or Tom Volk’s Fungus of the Month: Amanita muscaria.

    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”. [New] How does Santa get up and down those chimneys? There is interesting physics involved in this problem! Live Science discusses Santa physics, too. Here is a further discussion of the physics of flight.

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

  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 check it out yourself using the North Pole Webcam.

    Learn more about winter storms from What is the difference between a winter storm and a tropical storm? 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! Is every snowflake really different from all the others? Why are snowflakes white? You can find the answers to your questions at a snowflake FAQ.

    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. You can also make paper snowflakes (and stars) to use as decorations and [New] use this program to make virtual snowflakes and see what your paper ones will look like before you cut them.

    National Geographic offers snowflake or icicle wallpaper for your computer monitor.

    Some peoples of the far north make shelters from snow. Learn more, including how to build an igloo. Can snow insulate well enough to keep you from freezing to death?

    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 Science of Hockey page at the Exploratorium. You can also learn about the complex physics of downhill skiing, where acceleration = gravity - friction - air resistance. [New] How do snow making machines work? Is it anything like the way nature works?

    Every Christmas tree has icicles on it — at least the tinsel kind if no others. The physics of how icicles form was only recently deciphered!

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

    [New] Winter is a good time for science activities! See Cold Weather Science Crafts and Experiments and More Winter Science Fun.

  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.

    What causes the solstices? The simple answer is the tilt of the earth on its axis as the earth circles the sun complicated by that journey around the sun. Learn more about the complex path of the earth through space at the wonderful Analemma site. “Wandering noon” is most pronounced during the solstices. If you think you know the science of solstices, take this quiz.

  12. Winter Birds

    If you are a birder, join the Christmas Bird Count or Project FeederWatch. The annual Christmas Bird Count season is here. Birders from across the United States and from over 30 different countries will take to the field between December 14th and January 5th to record the birds in their count circles. The primary objective of the Christmas Bird Count is to monitor the status and distribution of bird populations across the Western Hemisphere. Since the first count on December 25, 1900, thousands of birders have helped create a significant database of information on the abundance and distribution of winter bird populations. Anyone can participate in his or her local Christmas count. Visit the National Audubon Society web site to locate a count area near you.

    There are lots of bird related sites on the internet that will help you identify the winter birds in your area, and give you information on how to help them through the winter. Here are a few: Your Winter Birds: Who They Are, and What to Feed Them, All About Birds, Top 10 Foods for Winter Bird Feeding, Dinner? It’s For the Birds!, Winter Bird Feeding, and Birds.

    [New] While you are decorating a Christmas tree in your house, decorate one outside for the birds!

  13. 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 space ship? Would it look different than on earth? How do those trick candles work, that you can’t blow out? You can read this discussion to find out if a candle in a plummeting elevator would stay lit. As you can see, different scientists may have different ideas about the answers to your science questions.

    In 1860, Michael Faraday gave a Christmas lecture on candles.

  14. 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 …

    Of course, language is more than just vocal and written words. Learn to sign “Merry Christmas”. [New] Signing Christmas carols is truly beautiful. Go to this site to find links to several.

  15. 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 over 20 years. (Don’t miss the fun games offered at this site.) If you have a true love this Christmas, better take out a loan …

    Christmas movies have a lot of economics in them, and often they have gotten the economics wrong.

  16. [New] Christmas Mathematics

    Visit the mathematics in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Math is everywhere in our lives, even in Christmas!

    Here is a page with links to more Christmas mathematics.

  17. The Chemistry of Christmas

    [New] There are a lot of chemistry projects related to the holidays. You can make fake snow, make glow-in-the-dark snowflakes, and try some Christmas cooking. Don’t try these without an adult to help you! Use chemistry to solve the “Christmas Cookie Mystery”.

    For some obscure reason, chemists and other scientists seem to like to compose Christmas carols: Iona Prep Physics Phun, Chemistry Carols and Physics Carols. There is even a chemistry version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — can you find the elements in this story?

    At Christmas in 1827, Michael Faraday started a series of Christmas lectures on chemistry. 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. RI Christmas lectures are now broadcast by the BBC.

  18. 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.) 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.

    [New] How do animals keep warm in cold weather?

  19. 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.

    Does feasting on turkey make you drowsy? No, turkey is not the culprit!

    Wild turkeys are interesting birds. Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the Turkey the national bird of the young United States, rather than the Eagle. If you get a parent to help, you can try making a variety of turkey calls. Or make a pine-cone turkey to decorate your house this Christmas, in honor of these interesting birds.

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 12/07. Further revised 12/09.