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The Physics of Christmas by Roger Highfield

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The Physics of Christmas by Roger Highfield

The cover of The Physics of Christmas by Roger Highfield.

The Bottom Line

If you enjoy Christmas and enjoy physics, then I think you'll enjoy this book. Highfield has an entertaining tone and deals with the subject in an engaging fashion, much as in his more recent The Science of Harry Potter.
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  • A fun look at the Yuletide season from a scientific perspective.
  • Covers a wide range of science, from physics & astronomy to biology & genetics.


  • Some speculation required for mythological scientific analysis.


  • Paperback, 320 pages
  • Back Bay Books, 1999
  • 12 chapters, 3 appendices, glossary, bibliography & index

Guide Review - The Physics of Christmas by Roger Highfield

Disclaimer: This review is based on a 1998 edition of the book, in hardcover, which included different cover art and a LED light on Rudolph's nose. This version is somewhat different - for example, it lacks "Appendix 2: Teleporting Santa" which is in the current edition of the book.

I must confess that my view of Roger Highfield's The Physics of Christmas is colored with emotion and bias. For Christmas of 1998, as I was entering my final semester of undergraduate work in Physics, I received this book from my grandmother ... a grandmother who would not live to see Christmas of 1999. For this reason, if no other, the book holds meaning for me.

However, trying to look at it dispassionately, the book holds meaning for many other reasons. It takes a holiday which, for many of us, carries a strong emotional resonance, a magical time of year (if you'll pardon the cliche), and invokes the harsh light of reality and science to look at different aspects which have been taken for granted. Despite the harshness of this light, however, I consider it instead to only add to the special nature of the season to understand the full scope of where it comes from.

This book deals equally well with the origins of the Christmas tree, mistletoe, the date of Christ's birth, and other historical considerations while also dealing with the question of Santa's obesity, how reindeer could fly, how fast they must move, and other less realistic questions. The psychology of Christmas - both blues and cheer - is covered, as is the nature of gift-giving and how it has evolved over the years, and, of course, the thermodynamics of turkey.

One would be hard pressed to find an aspect of the Christmas tradition that is not addressed, in some fashion, by Highfield's book. Such a thoughtful analysis can only add to an appreciation of the holidays.

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