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The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey Hardcover – December 1, 1998


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 293 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown & Co (T); 1st edition (December 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316366110
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316366113
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 5.2 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,700,124 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Roger Highfield loves science, and he loves Christmas, too. Combining the two in The Physics of Christmas is his attempt to refute the notion that "the materialist insights of science destroy our capacity to wonder, leaving the world a more boring and predictable place." To that end, Highfield presents an amusing, eclectic, and trivia-filled collection of scientific observations about one of the Western world's most beloved holidays.

Contrary to the title, Highfield doesn't limit himself to physics. His anthropological observations include tracing the origins of Santa Claus--an especially amusing and enlightening chapter entitled "Santa: The Hallucinogenic Connection" examines the possibilities of the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria's red-and-white cap being the inspiration for Santa's robes. In a tip of the stocking cap to biology, Highfield hints at a parasitic infestation that may be responsible for poor Rudolph's red nose and examines the advantages of cloned Christmas trees. Psychologically speaking, we find an analysis of the emotional weight of gift giving and card exchanging (sever all relationships with those who send musical cards, research suggests), and how a holiday can be both religious and commercial. Even post-holiday depression is deconstructed, along with Santa's unhealthy obesity and apparent immortality, the effects of alcohol on sleep patterns, the astronomical origins of the Bethlehem star, and the ins and outs of snow.

You'll never look at the trappings of Christmas the same way after reading Highfield's seriously funny book. And you may accidentally learn something, too. --Therese Littleton

Review

...a delightful compendium of seasonal science.... Relying on the research of an eminent list of scholars from around the world, he endeavors to enrich our understanding of everything associated with the holiday, providing genuine insights as well as fanciful speculation. -- The New York Times Book Review, Simon Singh

More About the Author

Roger Highfield was born in Wales, raised in north London and became the first person to bounce a neutron off a soap bubble. He has written seven books, sat on a few committees and was the science editor of The Daily Telegraph for two decades. Today, he is the Editor of New Scientist magazine, the global science and technology weekly.
To contact Roger, see www.rogerhighfield.com
Follow Roger on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rogerhighfield

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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See all 15 customer reviews
Each chapter stands alone and so you can pick one that sounds interesting and read it.
Harold McFarland
The author was also able to keep everything on such a level that a reader with a minimal background in science can appreciate the book.
R. Jacob
Also, the book is wonderful coffee table reading because it is not required, or even recommended, to read it from cover to cover.
Tripper Hook

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 27, 1998
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful gift book, even better to own (but it is clearly a seasonal read). The author is a scientist of wonderfully broad knowledge, and he puts all of it to work to examine and evaluate virtually all of the things that mean "Christmas" to the western world: from formulae for estimating the cooking time for a plum pudding, to the history and derivation of Santa, to why evergreens stay green, and beyond. Did you know, for example, that there are serious efforts to clone Christmas trees? Or that Santa's reindeer would only have had antlers at Christmas time if they were female, or castrated? The title is a little bit misleading - it is really the various sciences of Christmas, not limited to physics. This is a book for adults or teens - dense with information and fun. There is a wonderful bibliography, too, for further reading on specific subjects, and a helpful index. My only complaint is Rudolph's battery-powered blinking nose built into the hard cover, which not only raises the price of the book but results in a poor quality binding that is not durable. This book should be a "keeper", but the eccentric binding probably limits its life span. That is a shame.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By R. Jacob on November 17, 1999
Format: Hardcover
The title is a bit misleading. This book is light on the physics while covering many other disciplines, including history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, chemistry (the author is a chemist), biology, and physiology. However, the broad range of topics keeps the reader's interest. The author was also able to keep everything on such a level that a reader with a minimal background in science can appreciate the book.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By "blackjewel" on February 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The Physics of Christmas is a collection of short, bright essays that attempt to explain by means of science - not only physics, but very broadly defined to include anthropology, psychology and sociology as well chemistry and biology - all the wacky things people do during the holidays. No subject is too small for Highfield's enthusiastic scrutiny. He devotes one essay to the reasons Brussels sprouts are bitter; another to the architecture of snowflakes; yet another to the biology of reindeer.
Sampled in small doses, these essays can be fascinating. You may have some dim notion that Santa Claus harks back to St. Nicholas, a holy man from the coast of Turkey. It is less well known that some academics posit that his suit is red because people liked to ingest psychedelic toadstools - "the recreational and ritualistic drug of choice in parts of northern Europe before vodka was imported from the East." Santa's vivid robes, Highfield writes, are thought by some to "honor the red-and-white dot color scheme of this potent mind-altering mushroom." It will be a long time before I forget that the Lapps of northern Scandinavia - who pulverize reindeer horns and market the stuff as an aphrodisiac - actually have a genetic mutation rendering some of the men "unusually virile." Or that a cancer research organization has found that Christmas is the only meal of the year at which most British children eat sufficient amounts of vegetables.
But read more than one or two of Highfield's pieces at a time, and you may find yourself reaching anxiously for another egg nog. Highfield is an engaging writer, with an obvious and endearing passion for his subject. But what he has assembled in this pretty volume is an intimidating mountain of random scientific trivia.
Read more ›
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Michele Slack on October 22, 2004
Format: Paperback
Bought this book for my husband & he loves it. So I bought a few more for presents for other people. Not deep "boring" science, but good for those who lean a bit that way in their interests.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
For those who believe curiosity killed the cat, this book proves such cliches to be incorrect. Dr. Highfield has done well to organize the massive amounts of research in sociology, psychology, chemistry, physics etc. in such a way as to explain much of the mysteries and associations of the holidays. Despite such "debunking", Highfield somehow manages to retain much of the mystery and joy of Christmas in his writing, which balances humor and academic rigor nicely. This is a must read for the perpetually curious, and holiday revelers of all sorts.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 31, 1998
Format: Hardcover
When you first pick up this book, you think, oh welll this is going to be time wasted. Fortunately, this feeling dispels as soon as your a few pages in. This book deals with many aspects of Christmas in scientific terms. It examines many things from rudolph to how Santa delivers all his presents. I believe that this is a perfect book for anyone with any interest in science and with the interest to get to the bottom of Christmas.
Its magical and everyone should own a copy.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Harold McFarland HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on December 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
If you are one of those people who has to ask "Why" about everything then you will find this a fascinating book. It is indeed centered around Christmas and all the traditions and expectations of that season, but it is much more than another historical or anthropological book about the holiday. It does have a lot of historical information and makes a fascinating read just for that fact. But in addition it has scientific information from many disciples that just builds more fascination into the subject.
Each chapter stands alone and so you can pick one that sounds interesting and read it. Each deals with a different aspect of the season and so does not build on a previous chapter. Read it in the order of your interests. Chapters cover such areas as Santa, reindeer, Christmas trees, food, snow and seasonal moods.
The writing style is easy flowing and fun to read. You don't need to know anything about physics, or any other science for that matter, to follow and understand the book. It is a unique style of writing because the book is easy and fun to read like a novel and yet packed so full of information that it is more like a science book. So, which is it? I'm not sure, but if regular science books were this interesting and fun instead of full of dry examples then perhaps science scores in schools would climb.
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