For generations, people have puzzled over the magical tales featured in the literature of the Christmas season. How, exactly, did Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer get his pulsing proboscis? Did the Grinch’s heart really grow three sizes in one day? And how did Ebenezer Scrooge travel backwards and forward in time?
The inquiring minds of precocious preteens perseverate on such things, forcing their parents to concoct fantastical tales to explain such events. But the little ones are not easily fooled. “Fake News!” they cry, demanding ever more sophisticated explanations of the legends that limn the literature of the season. Fortunately, some eminent scientists at Johns Hopkins University have turned to their trusty slide rules, Bunsen burners, and test tubes to explain the inexplicable so you won’t have to.
Rudolph’s Red Nose.
Steve Farber, a biology professor at Johns Hopkins, claims the secret behind Rudolph’s red nose could be a process known as horizontal gene transfer. Many species from jelly fish to sea anemones to zebra fish exhibit bioluminescence or fluorescence. If some of that DNA found its way into Rudolph, his nose might glow, at least weakly.
Anthozoan coral found in certain tropical waters is bright red. If, postulates Farber, Rudolph’s mother cut herself on some anthozoan coral and swallowed some sea anemones at the same time, the result might very well be a glowing red nose. It’s a million-to-one chance, he admits, but no less likely than flying reindeer.
“With Rudolph,” Farber says, “the coral DNA got inserted into a gene that is normally expressed in the nasal epithelial cells, the cells of his nose. Kind of hijacking Rudolph’s nose cells and instructing them to make the red protein. And since the coral DNA is now in Rudolph’s DNA, it will be present forever through his life. It would just make this red protein that made his nose red — like a lightbulb.”
The Grinch & His Expanding Heart
No less improbable than Rudolph’s scintillating schnozzle is the Grinch’s heart, which grows three sizes once he becomes imbued with the Christmas spirit. That could happen, says Johns Hopkins cardiologist David Kass. He says the heart of a python can enlarge itself after the reptile eats a big meal. Since the Grinch is green in color and is quite reptilian in appearance, Kass speculates that is exactly what happens in this case.
“We know he’s a snake — he’s a snaky-like kind of guy,” Kass says. “Now whether it was triggered, in this case, by a meal, I can speculate. As I recall, he goes down to Whoville and he’s going to stop Christmas, so he’s getting all the presents, like reverse Santa Claus. But he gets all the food too. He gets that roast beast, and I don’t think he just threw it in his bag, so maybe like our python, that turned out to be a rather big meal. And sure enough, as he’s going back up, the heart starts getting really big.”
Scrooge & The Ghosts Of Christmas
One of the most enduring stories of the season is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. On Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge is transported many decades into the past and then projected forward into the future during the course of the night. Ibrahima “Ibou” Bah, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins says going forward in time is easy. “All you have to do to go forward in time and meet people in the future is move at incredibly high speeds.”
“So all that’s required is that you’re sitting still and I start to move at a fraction of the speed of light — and you can pump up somebody with sufficient rocket power to do that. The ghost could maybe take Scrooge and shoot off in space, really, really fast and then come back down. But then he has to bring Scrooge back.”
But going back in time is hard, Bah says. “Physically, we don’t think that’s possible.” Still, physicists are aware of a phenomenon called a “naked ring singularity,” which is sort of a rip in the fabric of space and time. A wormhole. Perhaps. The ghost could push Scrooge through just such a ring and take him back in time to his childhood. “If you’re able to create such a rip in space, you could enter it and come back out, and you’ll go backward in time,” Bah says.
So there you have it — scientific proof that all the unusual occurrences in Christmas literature have a basis in fact. Far fetched they may be, but Christmas is about believing in supernatural events. Perhaps the willful suspension of disbelief is as important to the Christmas season as hard scientific proof that a reindeer can have a red nose, a Grinch heart can grow three sizes, or that Scrooge made his incredible journey through time. The most fitting benediction for the season may be these words uttered by Tiny Tim: “Bless us all. Everyone.”
Thanks to Science Daily for delving into all these happenings in our holiday literature and seeking answers to the unknown and unknowable.
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