Christmas Q&A

    Scientific answers to festive questions.

    How many types of snowflakes are there?

    Whilst no two snowflakes are the same, scientists have been able to group the more symmetrical snow crystals into half a dozen broad categories according to their structure such as star, dendrite, column, plate, column capped with plates and needles. The six-fold symmetry of a snow crystal ultimately derives from the geometry and properties of water molecules.

    Who invented electric Christmas lights?

    Electric tree lights were invented by Edward Johnson in the US in 1882. Before this people used to light up their Christmas trees by gluing or pinning small candles to the branches – not very safe!

    Why does Rudolph have a red nose?

    There are various theories as to why Rudolph’s nose may have been red, from bioluminescence, a neat little trick used by fireflies and other creatures, to parasitic mite infections.

    What do astronomers think the star of Bethlehem was?

    Lots of explanations for the star or Bethlehem have been put forward. These include a nova/supernova, a comet, shooting stars, the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a close grouping of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, the stationary point of Jupiter or a variable star. The truth is we don’t know because of the meagre evidence for the star in the Bible. Moreover, the objective perspective of a modern astronomer may be inadequate - the wise men were not astronomers but astrologers seeking symbols in the sky.

    Which Christmas song was the first song broadcast from space?

    Jingle Bells was the first song broadcast from space when Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra sang it on December 16, 1965.

    How fast does Santa fly?

    If we assume that Santa has to travel 150,000,000km on Christmas Eve to visit two billion children and that, if he travels against the rotation of the earth, he has just under 48 hours to do it, then Santa will be travelling at 1,279miles per second. However, some argue that he uses quantum teleportation, the real world equivalent of a Star Trek transporter.

    What was the first SMS ever sent?

    SMS messaging was used for the first time was on 3 December 1992, when Neil Papworth, a 22-year-old test engineer, used a personal computer to send the text message "Merry Christmas" to the phone of Richard Jarvis.