It’s Christmas (kind of). This is a science blog (kind of). And so, therefore, I am obliged to offer you…
…A SCIENCE-OF-CHRISTMAS SPECIAL! Woo-hoo!
As with all Christmas-related activities, blogging about the Science of Christmas is something of a fixed tradition. At this moment, Googling “Science of Christmas” returns a whopping 209,000 hits. When I tweeted this a week ago, it was just 195,000. And this is just responding to demand. Google Trends shows us that searches for “science Christmas” have trebled over the last month. (It wasn’t me, I swear.)
To help us all get through this, I am breaking my Special into bite-sized chunks (of which this is but a morsel). And I am supplying musical accompaniment. And I am going to improve your life by presenting all this in the form of helpful advice. Because I am a good person.
So here you are. My scientific advice for Christmas, Part 1…
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#1. Watch out for snow-fakes
I think Chloë Agnew (nope, me neither) put it best when she sang “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow” in her lovely Christmassy ditty on the short-lived Megan Mullally Show back in 2006.
However, what’s this in the corner of the screen?
Ah yes, it’s a snowflake. Of course it is. Just look at it. There. In the corner. Next to the ‘M’ for Megan. A snowflake. Because it’s Christmas.
Except…whatever that thing might be, it is certainly NOT a snowflake. It is not a snowflake AT ALL. In fact, you might be interested to learn that, according to scientists, it is nothing short of a “corruption of nature” and an “abomination“. More snow-fake than snowflake, if you like. In fact, all this makes some scientists very angry indeed. And that’s just not Christmassy.
The problem is that the molecular building blocks of snowflakes are water drops, which are essentially circular (or, more correctly, spherical). As a result, there are only a few ways in which they can fit together. One consequence is that snowflakes will always end up exhibiting hexagonal symmetry. In other words, they have to make six- (or three- or twelve-) sided structures. They cannot, for example, have eight sides.
This is despite the fact that eight-sided snow-fakes feature prominently in the minds and outputs of graphic designers the world over.
Now, you might expect scientists in particular to be aware of this. However, when Nature — one of the most esteemed scientific journals in the world — featured an eight-sided snow-fake in an online subscriptions advertisement, chemist Professor Thomas Koop of the University of Bielefeld finally lost patience and complained to the journal in writing. The fact that the advertisement was pitched “to anyone who loves science” seemed to particularly aggravate him. “It bugs me“, he told The Guardian in a follow-up interview (yes, this made the news).
Koop pointed out that the eight-sided snowfake was first debunked by Johannes Kepler over 400 years ago. Nonetheless, it is still with us. Have fun this Christmas by seeing how many snow-fakes you can see around you. And make sure to thoroughly rebuke those responsible.
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#2. Be careful, you might die
I think Dr. Elmo put it best when he sang “Grandma got run over by a reindeer” in his lovely Christmassy duet with wife Patsy back in 1979.
It’s actually a little difficult to identify the most offensive aspect of that song and video, although list-fanatics will certainly have fun enumerating them. But we are not here for that. Suffice to say, the bad singing, bad miming, bad acting, fake snow, ridiculous premise, 1970s-style sexism, and gender-balanced ageism are but the tip of this particular iceberg.
No, our concern relates to the more general point that scientists have shown that Christmas and New Year are actually physically dangerous and can kill you. (Not necessarily you, of course. But maybe…)
Cardiologists have long warned about the “Merry Christmas Coronary“, where rates of ischemic heart disease deaths are found to be higher during the festive season. Because the original data for this were collected in northern hemisphere locations, it was first thought that such deaths were associated with cold weather. But later data showed that this was not the case. This was because cardiovascular deaths peak twice during the winter holidays: first around Christmas Day specifically, and again around New Year’s Eve.
As much as we might suspect that the head-wrecking inanity of ditties such as “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is likely to cause discerning viewers to suffer immediate heart attacks, the science here actually suggests these peaks in death largely result from behavioural and logistical factors. Not only do people over-indulge on food and alcohol on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, but they are also more likely to delay seeking medical attention should chest pains arise. And so on.
In fact, it’s not just cardiac deaths that spike at these times. In one recent (and comprehensively macabre) study, researchers David Phillips, Gwendolyn Barker, and Kimberly Brewer at the University of California examined all US death certificates from 1979 to 2004 and found dual Christmas/New Year spikes for a range of causes, including unnatural deaths. Moreover, they found Christmas and New Year to be far more likely to result in spikes in death rates when compared to other major US holidays, such as Independence Day or Thanksgiving.
All of which contrasts sharply with smaller studies that have suggested people can actually delay their own deaths around major religious festivals of personal significance. As much as we might like this to be true, the evidence for such effects is lacking. In fact, the hard data show that much the opposite is more likely. At least with regard to Christmas.
Ho, ho, ho!
So be careful. Statistically speaking, Christmas is a risk factor for death.
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#3. Don’t forget to swear
I think Moya Brennan put it best when she sang “You scumbag, you maggot, you’re CHEAP and you’re HAGGARD…“, in her lovely Christmassy duet with Ronan Keating.
However, did you know that there was once another version of this track, one which was a bit more sweary? (I realise that everyone just LOVES the Brennan/Keating version. Nonetheless, incorrigible traditionalists can view the original here.)
In the original, the offending line is “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot…” which just isn’t as nice as Brennan’s take on things. Of course it should be noted that in the narrative context of this particular song — an argument between a married couple — the term “faggot” refers simply to a lazy individual, as per the vernacular Hiberno-English usage.
But with the original track, the term was deemed to fall foul of a number of broadcasters’ anti-offensiveness policies. Among the broadcasters who chose to dub or censor the song were the BBC and, er, MTV. Yes, you heard correctly, I did say MTV. Although seemingly okay with showing day-long cleavage videos, wall-to-wall bum-shots, and other tediously repetitive music videos objectifying women and their bodies, MTV draws the line at any audible mention of the words “slut“, “faggot“, or “arse“.
All of which is a shame seeing as swearing is actually good for your health. Yes, earlier this month, scientists at Keele University found that uttering swear words during artificial pain stimulation helps people tolerate pain exposure for longer. They suggest that swearing elicits emotional responses that assist in physiologically dampening the feeling of pain.
The exception to this principle is that the effects are less pronounced among people who swear a lot every day. These people are emotionally unmoved by swearing, and so don’t benefit as much from its analgesic effects.
In other words, the positive effects of swearing will be particularly pronounced among people who are normally too polite to swear in everyday conversation.
So, over Christmas, don’t feel obliged to observe the niceties of artificial politeness, especially if you are normally a very polite person. Instead, swear like a trooper. As well as adding to the festivities of the season, according to science it’s good for you.
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There endeth the Christmas advice for now.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.