Christmas and science may not seem like a natural match for each other at first glance. After taking a closer look though, I was surprised at the number of hits returned when searching for Christmas-related words on PubMed. So, what better way to get into the Christmas spirit than with a small round up of some interesting articles where science intersects with the festive season in some way:
A Christmas Pareidolia
“We have all lain on our backs, looked up at the clouds, and imagined all sorts of creatures there. Sometimes the same may happen with electron microscopy”. Perhaps not all of us have been lucky enough to experience this kind of pareidolia with an electron microscope. But Getty and his colleagues have and these are some of the images that they imagined for the influenza virus on the left below:
This was taken from the 1984 Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal. Since 1982, the journal has published these special Christmas editions where they tackle some lighter subject matters than they usually would during the year. The articles don’t always relate to Christmas per se (for example, other articles have researched Harry Potter, James Bond, and unicycling). Unsurprisingly though, Christmas is a common theme. A highlight from this year’s edition included a retrospective observational study which scientifically dispelled the ‘naughty or nice’ myth (Park, 2016).
The Christmas Tree Cataract
In 1993, popular singer Gloria Estefan sang the catchy chorus: “I wanna see Christmas through your eyes / I want everything to be the way it used to be”. I’m not exactly sure what inspired Gloria to write this song; but she may very well have been singing about a patient with Christmas Tree cataract. This is quite a rare type of cataract and the authors of this paper summarise the other nine known case reports of it from around the world (with an additional report published earlier this month by Rao RC and Choudhry N containing some stunning images). I initially thought that these cataracts were part of some kind of Christmas gag since they look so surreal (and this Natung article just happened to be published on April 1). They seem legit though. Perhaps the authors say it best at the end of this article: “It is a wonder, how an illuminated Christmas tree like glittering can be found in the human body”.
Rudolph the Infected Reindeer
Have you ever stopped to wonder why Rudolph’s nose is red? Never fear, because Norwegian scientist Odd Halvorsen has. Here he provides an in-depth overview of the various parasites that infect reindeer and how the arctic conditions influence the types of infections that Santa’s reindeer may be susceptible to. I learnt perhaps more than I will ever need to know about reindeer parasitology from this paper. But Halvorsen ends with the important take-away lesson: “it is no wonder that poor Rudolph, burdened as he is by parasites, gets a red nose when he is forced to pull along an extra burden like Santa Claus!”. This topic was also the subject a BMJ Christmas edition article where it was found that “Rudolph’s nose is red because it is richly supplied with red blood cells, comprises a highly dense microcirculation, and is anatomically and physiologically adapted for reindeer to carry out their flying duties for Santa Claus” (Ince, 2012).
Santa Hats as Teaching Tools
The pelvic organ prolapse quantification (POP-Q) system is used to describe the various stages of prolapse in patients. For those familiar with oncology, it is similar to the TNM staging system used to describe tumours. However, at the time of publication, the authors of this article could not find an established tool which was used to teach this system to students. So they set out to develop their own method. Since the annual education meeting of the Austrian Urogynecologic Society was always scheduled shortly before Christmas time, the authors decided to use a Santa hat for their model; where the tassel at the top represents a cervix, a frame around the bottom represents the hymen, and buttons sewed onto the inside of the hat represent various anatomical landmarks that are important in the prolapse staging system. It is quite an elegant idea and the early hands-on workshops held by the authors were well-received. Since then, a “sock-and-tube” model has also been developed to provide another inexpensive option for teaching this system (Parnell, 2011).
This has been just a very small sampling of some Christmas-related articles found in the scientific literature. What other examples can you find?