The Science Of Festivity

There’s a scientific basis to the magic of the holiday season.

AsianScientist (Dec. 22, 2017) – ‘Tis the season to be jolly, and even if you feel like you don’t need a break from the bench, your lab rats, mice, zebrafish, fruit flies and interns are probably hoping to catch a breather over this holiday season. It’s easy to miss out on the year-end celebrations when you’re holed up in a dark room developing a western blot film or staring down some cells, but do keep in mind that there’s a whole world beyond the laboratory that’s equally worthy of your attention. Oh, and remember those people known as family and friends? Yes, I’ll bet they’re thinking of you too.

After a year of hard work, perhaps some time away from the incubators and centrifuges are in order. If it’s any consolation, there’s plenty of good science that goes into merry-making—everything from alcoholic beverages to decorative lights contains an element of science in them, so if you just convince yourself that these indulgences count as ‘engaging in good science,’ you should be able to justify a year-end party or two. To help you along, here’s some trivia on how science is an essential part of revelry.

Two scientists walk into a bar

No party would be complete without some form of alcoholic beverage. As you imbibe that mug of frothy liquid gold, or sip on that resveratrol-rich, deep red fluid, you are taking in the metabolic waste products of suffocated microbes. The process of fermentation, in which yeast breaks down sugar in the absence of oxygen to yield ethanol and carbon dioxide, is central to the creation of alcoholic drinks.

The ethanol in alcoholic beverages is responsible for that tipsy feeling you get when you’ve had too much to drink. At high enough concentrations, ethanol can bind to the receptors of neurons in the brain, slowing down mental processing speeds. Also, if you find yourself turning red, a symptom more common among Asians, you might want to cut back on the number pints you have—that’s a sign that your body is struggling to get rid of the ethanol and its toxic by-products. Needless to say, drink in moderation, and of course, don’t drive under the influence of alcohol.

Cooking is but chemistry

The scent of a roasted platter wafting through a room is sure to get anyone hungry. In addition to that heavenly smell, the rich brown color of meat fresh off the grill is an unmistakable sign that the Maillard reaction—named after the French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard—has occurred. When meat is heated to approximately 150 degrees Celsius, the sugars and proteins inside it interact to give rise to an assortment of delectable aroma and flavor compounds sure to tempt the palate of even the most stringent calorie counter.

On the other hand, food that is rich in carbohydrates, such as potatoes, predominantly undergo a separate heat-induced process known as caramelization, wherein sugars break down and reform into polymers that result in browning and a characteristic sweet, nutty flavor. For those so inclined to take a scientific approach to cooking, note that the Maillard reaction and caramelization are affected by heat, moisture, pH and timing, so getting the perfect roast might require an optimization experiment in the kitchen.

Getting high on giving

Have you ever wondered why gifting makes you feel happy? Well, research has shown that when you spend money on someone whom you care about, you get a happiness boost, and scientists have actually mapped the brain region that associates generosity with happiness. Hormones such as dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin—the very same molecules produced by exercise and sex—are thought to be responsible for this phenomenon known as ‘giver’s glow’ or ‘helper’s high,’ which also suggests that there is an addictive quality to giving.

On a related note, a study has shown that gifting experiences is superior to gifting material items; the former helps forge stronger relationships between the giver and the recipient. With this in mind, if you’ve yet to do your holiday shopping for that special someone under the mistletoe, it might not be too late to reconsider your options.

A deLightful innovation

Decorative lighting often sets the mood for a celebration. If you’ve observed how lights have evolved over the years, you’ll find that incandescent bulbs have mostly been substituted by light-emitting diode (LED) lamps. Fundamentally, an LED is a semiconductor device that directly converts electrical energy to light energy. This makes it much more efficient than a light bulb, which uses electricity to heat a tungsten filament until it glows.

While red and green LEDs had been around since the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that blue LEDs became available. Most people might shrug this off as simply the creation of another color of light, but the Japanese creators of the blue LED received the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention. This was because the blue LED, combined with the red and green ones before it, enabled the production of white light, and this greatly expanded the range of applications of LEDs in mainstream lighting. So as you string those decorative LED lights around that artificial conifer, take a moment to marvel at the scientific achievement you hold in your hands.

The late American author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that “Science is magic that works.” I hope I’ve managed to convince you that science is indeed embedded in the magic of this festive season. From all of us here at Asian Scientist Magazine, seasons greetings and happy holidays!

This article is from a monthly column called Hacking a PhD. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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