December 6, 2017 – A reindeer with a red glowing nose.
A heart, two sizes two small, that suddenly grows three sizes.
A trip to the past and to the future — all in one night.
This festive season, Johns Hopkins University researchers dug deep into their reserves of scientific expertise to explain how these inexplicable plot lines in holiday classics like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Christmas Carol just might be (almost) (possibly) possible:
A biologist explains Rudolph’s nose:
Steve Farber, principal investigator at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a Johns Hopkins biology professor
Although reindeer noses aren’t typically red, or infused with enough light to guide a sleigh, Farber says other earthly creatures are that color and glow through bioluminescence or fluorescence — everything from jelly fish to sea anemones to the zebrafish he studies. If genetic material from one of those organisms found a way into Rudolph’s DNA, Farber supposes he, too, could glow red — or at least a certain protuberance on his face could.
How might that happen? Say Rudolph’s mother, while pregnant, came upon Anthozoan coral, a brilliantly red species found in shallow tropical waters. And say she cut herself on the coral. Coral DNA might have entered her bloodstream, Farber says. In a one-in-a-million event, only slightly more likely than running into a flying reindeer, the coral DNA might have moved from her blood into a virus-like genetic element that transferred it into the egg cell that formed Rudolph.
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This is a process called horizontal gene transfer.
“With Rudolph,” Farber says, “the coral DNA got inserted into a gene that is normally expressed in the nasal epithelial cells, the cells of his nose. Kind of hijacking Rudolph’s nose cells and instructing them to make the red protein. And since the coral DNA is now in Rudolph’s DNA, it will be present forever through his life. It would just make this red protein that made his nose red — like a lightbulb.”
A cardiologist explains The Grinch’s heart condition:
David Kass, the Abraham and Virginia Weiss Professor of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins Medicine
Despite never having diagnosed a storybook character, and his inability to interview the patient or get any sort of a medical history, with such an extremely small-sized organ that got suddenly large, Kass immediately suspected heart failure.
“We see lots of heart failure patients. Heart failure patients often have very large hearts; they’re weak. BUT — if you have heart failure, you’re not going to feel good; you’re not going to be smiling; you’re not going to be lifting your sled, as I understand he did. You’re not going to be handing out lots of presents and being cheerful. At least not usually. You’re going to be short of breath; you’re going to feel pretty lousy. You’re not going to really be up even crossing the room, let alone sledding down a hill. So that part didn’t really fit so much and I thought, ‘All right; so what else do you have?’”
Kass also ruled out a ruptured valve, which could suddenly enlarge a heart. But that often happens to people who abuse drugs, which didn’t appear to be one of Grinch’s foibles. And when it happens, there’s not going to be any sledding.
It was when Kass considered Grinch’s greenness, along with his shrinking and expanding heart, that a theory emerged: The Grinch is a snake. He’s essentially a python, an animal known for having a heart that balloons after the animal eats something many times its own size.
“We know he’s a snake — he’s a snaky-like kind of guy,” Kass says. “Now whether it was triggered, in this case, by a meal, I can speculate. As I recall, he goes down to Whoville, and he’s going to stop Christmas so he’s getting all the presents, like reverse Santa Claus. But he gets all the food too. He gets that roast beast, and I don’t think he just threw it in his bag, so maybe like our python, that turned out to be a rather big meal. And sure enough, as he’s going back up, the heart starts getting really big.”
If Kass was Grinch’s doctor, he might tell him to lay off the big meals, in particular the roast beast, which sounds like red meat, a coronary no-no.
A theoretical physicist explains Scrooge’s time-travel:
Ibrahima “Ibou” Bah, an assistant professor of Physics & Astronomy
In A Christmas Carol, the Christmas ghosts teach Scrooge a life lesson by bringing him back to his past and giving him a glimpse of his future. “From a physics point of view,” Bah says, “he is moving back and forth in time and you should wonder, ‘How’d that happen?’”
According to Bah, the Ghost of Christmas Future had much less heavy lifting — at least on the initial leg of his trip.
“You can move forward in time — that’s actually easy,” Bah says. “All you have to do to go forward in time and meet people in the future is move at incredibly high speeds.”
If somebody is moving fast compared to someone else, his clock will tick slower, according to Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity. So to travel to the future, just start moving at speeds close to the speed of light, Bah says. Since your clock is ticking slower than the person who is not moving, 10 years in your reference frame can be 30 years in theirs.
“So all that’s required is that you’re sitting still and I start to move at a fraction of the speed of light — and you can pump up somebody with sufficient rocket power to do that. The ghost could maybe take Scrooge and shoot off in space, really, really fast and then come back down. But then he has to bring Scrooge back.”
The coming back is the rub. As is the whole ‘going back in time’ thing. “Physically, we don’t think that’s possible,” Bah says.
If the Ghost of Christmas Past was able to gin up some negative energy (which doesn’t technically exist), he could create a loop in space-time that would allow him to take Scrooge back to see his younger self. Or, if the ghost was able to take some matter, make it spin very fast, and then collapse it into a small area to make a rip in the fabric of space, or what those in the business call a “naked ring singularity,” he could go back in time by going through the ring.
“If you’re able to create such a rip in space, you could enter it and come back out, and you’ve go backward in time,” Bah says.
For the record, Bah did not say “humbug.”