Tis the season to give the quirkiest and most fascinating Christmas book ever The Physics of Christmas by the English science writer Roger Highfield. The title, for all its bandwagon catchiness, is a bit misleading. There is more to this book than you would first imagine. Yes, there is plenty of easily digestible science here, and it is great fun. With a contagious curiosity and a dry wit, Highfield explains why reindeer can't fly and other things can, how snow happens, and the physics and biochemistry of the holiday meal including sauces, chocolate, and holiday spirits. He explains the physical basis of the moods that result from overindulgence.
Nothing escapes Highfield's attention. With a scientist's eye and a cultural historian's respectful touch, he scrutinizes the notion of a virgin birth. He also examines likely nominees for the astronomical phenomenon if any that was interpreted as the star of Bethlehem, which takes him into the Magi's Babylonian astrology and the wildly superstitious Hebrews' prohibitions against that particular superstition. Nor is Highfield above playing intellectual games, such as speculating on why Rudolph's nose might have been red and calculating the amount of time Santa would need for each household visit. Every page of this book provides unexpected insights into the holiday season. Consider the ecology of Christmas trees. According to Highfield, a single acre of growing conifers provides all the oxygen requirements of 18 people. With a million or so acres of the trees growing every year, they nourish 18 million people until they are cut in December.
An equal amount of The Physics of Christmas is simply the social history of a favorite holiday, and probably done better than ever before. Using Christmas as his unifying theme, Highfield ranges across the spectrum, including even shopping and cards and carols. In one of his appendices, he takes a look at the role of religious faith in health, and the role of depression in holiday fatigue. All in all, The Physics of Christmas is a most satisfying celebration of all things Christmasy, and probably destined to become something of a tradition itself. ¦Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt).