24 Dec 2021 STEAM / STEM

The STEAM Before Christmas- 5 Festive Science Facts

Here’s some science facts to prove you can find STEM absolutely anywhere, even during the Christmas school holidays!

The school holidays may be upon us, and the classrooms shuttered until the new year, but that doesn’t mean young scientists get any time off! There’s plenty of sciences involved in Christmas- from meteorology to maths, botany to biochemistry. At STEAMWORKS, we’ve picked out a few facts for you to mull over during the festivities!

Hating sprouts is in your genes

Sprouts are the marmite of a good Christmas dinner- you love them or hate them. Have you notice the divide between those who scream “yuck!” when a sprout goes near their fork versus the people who eat them like sweets?

Liking sprouts and other bitter, green vegetables is down to genetics and bacteria living in your mouth. Our genes, the sequences of DNA which dictates the way we are, vary from person to person. We all have a gene which let us taste bitter foods, but some of us have a version of that gene which makes sprouts taste much, much worse. That’s why you get differences around the dinner table.

Then there’s the microbiome living in your mouth. A microbiome is the name given to a group of microorganisms which live in an environment, in this case your mouth. They’re not dangerous and actually help start the digestion process when you eat food. But some people, children in particular, have microbiomes that make bitter foods taste much worse, which is probably why lots of us spat out the sprouts and broccoli when we were little.

Don’t neglect the sprouts though! They’re packed with vitamins A and C, folic acid and fibre which all keep you fit and healthy.

Rudolph doesn’t have a shiny nose

“Rudolph the red nosed reindeer, had a very shiny nose,” we all know how this one goes. But did you know, thanks to some very handy evolutionary tricks, they don’t actually have shiny noses?

Reindeer in snow. Photo by Annika Thierfeld from Pexels

Reindeers are found in the coldest parts of the world where they live with the help of numerous adaptations thanks to evolution. Evolution is where animals change over thousands of years to better suit their habitat and increase their chances of survival. Reindeer have evolved wide hooves to make walking on the snow easier and a special circulatory system to make sure their blood stays warm at temperatures as low as -21°C .

Most importantly, reindeers have two layers of fur which cover their entire bodies to stay warm- including their noses. In fact, they are the only deer species with hairy noses. This means Rudolph couldn’t have a shiny nose without some help (maybe he shaves).

I’m dreaming of a white… January/February

Compared to all the snow we see in Christmas movies, cards and decorations, the odds of real snow on Christmas Day aren’t that high.

According to the Met Office, the UK’s leading meteorologists/weather predicting wizards, snow fall is more likely after Christmas. On average, December sees 3.9 days where snow falls anywhere in the UK, whilst we get 5.3 days in January, 5.6 days in February and 4.2 days in March. 

Although the odds don’t look good, you might be heartened to hear that the Met Office has recorded snowfall somewhere in the UK 38 times in the last 52 years.

Every snowflake is (most probably) unique

No two snow flakes are the same, everyone knows that… or do they? What are the chances of two different flakes actually being the same? Let’s have a look at what makes a snowflake.

Snowflakes are ice crystals made in very specific air temperatures, pressures and humidity. Any changes in those can influence the way water molecules bond together before they eventually rest on the ground. On top of all of that, your average snowflake is made of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (ten quintillion) different molecules of water. These can arrange themselves in a near-infinite number of ways! That makes the odds of two exact replicas very, very low.

“Wait,” you shout at me, “so there’s still a slim chance that two snowflakes formed in the same conditions can have the same shape, even if it’s unlikely!” Whilst that’s true, the odds are about as low as you can get.

To get two identical snow flakes in the 13.8 billion year history of our planet, you’d probably need 10¹⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰ Earths to make it possible (which, to use very scientific language, is loads).

Why Christmas pudding burns blue

Christmas pudding is a uniquely British Christmas tradition with many odd habits that come along with it, from hiding a sixpence coin in them to setting them alight with brandy. If your family lights their pudding this Christmas you might notice it glows with a blue flame. Here’s why.

There’s a bit of simple chemistry behind the Christmas pudding’s blue flame. Brandy is an alcoholic liquor with a high concentration of ethanol which, among other things, is a fuel. Ethanol is very flammable and when someone takes a flame to it, it quickly reacts with the oxygen in the air and ignites.

Ethanol reacts very well with oxygen with very few waste products, this is called complete combustion. It gives the Christmas pudding it’s clean, blue flame. If you see a more normal yellow flame, like from a candle, something else is burning causing incomplete combustion. In a candle, liquid wax is drawn up through the wick and that burns too.

STEAMWORKS at Christmas

There’s room for science, technology, engineering, art, maths and making all year around! We’ve been holding our creative STEM workshops right up to Christmas this year to make sure all young scientists get the opportunity to have fun with science this December. This month, we’ve had a brilliant time designing decorations with our students at specially themed FabLabs.

We’ve had an incredible year at STEAMWORKS. We’ve made it out the other end of successive lockdowns, socially distanced workshops and a whole host of other unprecedented problems ready to get going again. Have a brilliant Christmas, and we can’t wait to meet more fantastic young scientists in 2022!