Embrace the Christmas science cult and avoid unnecessary snowmen

Share
Related Topics
This year's Melvyn Bragg Christmas Science Lecture is to be given by Professor Gene Jones at the Royal Broadcasting Institute next Wednesday. For those of you who cannot get to London or who aim to start their Christmas shopping that evening, I am pleased to be able to bring you the entire abridged text today and tomorrow.

"Good evening and welcome. As you know, the idea of the Melvyn Bragg Christmas Science Lecture is to popularise science by any means possible, including that of making it topical and interesting, and that is why on this day every year we look at all aspects of science which are peculiarly applicable to Christmas time and see what lessons we can draw from it.

"People are often amazed by the idea that there are connections between science and Christmas time, but in fact any science you care to name could be quoted for the purpose. Astronomy? Astronomy can explain the wise men's star. Chemistry? Chemistry can explain the affinity that brandy seems to have with butter, creating brandy butter, something which is only eaten at Christmas time. Mathematics ...?

"Ah, now, mathematics! Maths is very involved with Christmas. For instance, it is the only time of the year that we find ourselves counting backwards, because - anybody? That's right! We count backwards for Advent! Yes, I know we count backwards for darts matches as well, but I'm just thinking of Christmas things today. Any more mathematical examples at Christmas time? Yes, there are the twelve days of Christmas. There is the whole question of when Christ was born, and you may have read in a paper this week that an Italian expert now reckons that Christ as born in 12BC, which means that we celebrated the Millennium without knowing it in AD 1988 ...

"But let's take a simpler Christmas maths problem, that of providing everyone with their fair share of roast potatoes at the Christmas dinner. We all know that mother divides the potatoes to give enough to every guest present. We also know that there is never enough to go round, and that someone goes short. How can maths help us here?

"Well, as a trained mathematician or at least statistician, I have observed that some people take more than others. I have also observed that the people who take more potatoes also take the larger potatoes. The solution is obvious. Along with the roast potatoes, also roast a quantity of large chunks of parsnip. The greedy people, going for the bigger bits, will be filling themselves up with parsnip, thus leaving ample potatoes for the less greedy.

"Anthropology, do I hear someone cry? Has anthropology got any lessons for us at Christmas time? Well, yes, it has. When last week's snow came, I went out in the field with my boy to roll a big snowball. Now, one thing we noticed as we rolled our snowball along and it got bigger and bigger, was that if you roll a big snowball, you roll more than just snow: you roll grass, and sheep's droppings, and twigs, and stones, all bundled up inside that big, three-foot-high snowball.

"From a distance your snowball looks big and white, but you know better; you know that the snowball is a bran tub of other things. If you took all the snow away, there would still be a lot of non-snow material left - and this is precisely what happens when the snow melts! And this week, sure enough, the snow had all melted, even my big snowball, and what was left behind was an otherwise inexplicable little pyramid of grass, sheep droppings, stones and glass.

"Imagine if, as an anthropologist, you came across such a cache of objects. Aha! you might say to yourself, here is a tribe that worships glass, stone, sheep droppings and twigs! Similarly, if you came across a pile of three pieces of coal, a carrot, four twigs and an old scarf, you might, as a scientist, be baffled. But as a Christmas scientist, you would know immediately that - anyone? Very good! It was the remnants of a snowman! You see, we Christmas scientists can explain things in terms of someone in the past having fun, a thing that anthropologists never let themselves do!"

Tomorrow: why there is always one dud bulb in the Christmas lights, plus scientific musings on wet gum boots, the effect of medieval candles on the medieval ozone layer, how evaporation can help keep the Brussels sprouts warm, and why the human mind is incapable of drawing Christmas trees accurately. Don't miss part 2 of the Melvyn Bragg Christmas Lecture!

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform