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6 Great Scientists Who Were Born on Christmas Day

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

From the discoverer of titanium to a prehistoric plant expert, these Christmas kids helped us better understand the natural world and our place within it.

1. JOHN PHILLIPS (1800-1874)

John Phillips was born on December 25, 1800. In 1808, when he was just 7, he lost both of his parents in quick succession and was taken in by his uncle William Smith, a surveyor and fossil-hunter now known as the “Father of English Geology.” Later in life, Phillips also became a great geologist, and in the 1840s, he drew upon his uncle’s work to identify and name three significant eras in Earth’s history: the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. He also authored several papers on the subject of astronomy.

2. WILLIAM GREGOR (1761-1817)

A British chemist, mineralogist, painter, clergyman, and Christmas kid, Gregor is primarily remembered as the man who discovered titanium. He first came across a sample of this element on the sandy banks of a stream that ran near the Cornish village of Manaccan (also spelled Menaccan) in 1790. The following year, Gregor wrote a paper about the newfound metal, and in honor of its place of origin, he proposed calling the element either menacanite or menachine. Ultimately, though, the German chemist Martin Klaproth independently discovered titanium in 1796, and this was the name that stuck [PDF].

3. RICHARD E. SHOPE (1901-1966)

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In 1918 and 1919, an influenza pandemic killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide; in the United States, 28 percent of all citizens came down with the disease, which claimed 10 times as many American lives as World War I. Meanwhile, pigs in the Midwestern U.S. were dying of a similar illness.

Richard E. Shope, a pathologist employed by the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, suspected the two outbreaks were related. So in 1928, Shope visited Iowa—where he had been born on Christmas Day in 1901—to investigate a possible link between the two illnesses.

At the time, scientists believed that influenza was caused by a bacteria of some kind—so when he arrived in Iowa, Shope began searching infected swine for microscopic suspects. He managed to identify a bacteria species that was present in most of the runny-nosed pigs he examined. However, when he injected this one-celled organism into healthy pigs, they failed to contract the disease.

Starting again, Shope looked for other potential disease-carriers within the sick pigs’ mucus. In 1931, he filtered the samples to remove any bacteria and introduced this new filtrate to some non-infected swine. Soon, the control pigs came down with a mild case of porcine influenza, proving that the flu was caused by a “filter-passing agent”—in this case, a virus. When Shope combined the virus with the bacteria, the test animals came down with more severe symptoms. Encouraged by his results, American and British scientists conducted a series of tests, which showed that human and pig influenza were indeed close relatives. Building off of Shope’s research, a British team went on to isolate the human influenza virus for the very first time in 1933. If it hadn’t been for this breakthrough, flu vaccines might not exist today.

4. GERHARD HERZBERG (1904-1999)

Spectroscopy is a technique that allows scientists to study the interactions between matter and electromagnetic radiation. By most accounts, Gerhard Herzberg literally wrote the book on this subject: His classic three-volume textbook titled Molecular Spectra and Molecular Structure has been nicknamed “the spectroscopist’s bible” [PDF].

Herzberg came into the world on December 25, 1904 in Hamburg, Germany. His passion for science blossomed at an early age: As a boy, he could often be found reading up on chemistry and astronomy in his spare time. By the time Herzberg turned 25, he’d earned a Ph.D. in engineering physics and gotten 12 scientific papers published. In the mid-1930s, the rise of Nazism drove Herzberg and his Jewish wife—fellow spectroscopist Lusie Oettinger—out of their native Germany. They relocated to Canada, which Herzberg would call home for the better part of seven decades. Over time, several different fields—including astronomy and chemistry—would benefit from his command of spectroscopy. Using the process, Herzberg was able to detect hydrogen gas molecules in Uranus and Neptune’s atmospheres in 1952. Spectroscopy also helped the scientist shed some new light on free radicals (atoms or groups of atoms with an odd number of electrons). Herzberg’s incredible body of work earned him the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1971.

5. INNA A. DOBRUSKINA (1933-2014)

Paleobotanist Inna Dobruskina was arguably the world’s leading authority on plant life during the Triassic period, which occurred between 252 and 201 million years ago. She was born in one of Moscow’s “communal apartments” on December 25, 1933. As an adult, she taught at the Geological Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences—and risked incarceration by secretly distributing anti-Communist pamphlets for several years. In 1989, she emigrated to Israel, where she became a faculty member at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her life’s work took her around the world; by the time Drobuskina passed away in 2014, she’d prospected Triassic deposits in such countries as China, France, Austria, South Africa, Russia, and the United States [PDF].

During her days in the U.S.S.R., Dobruskina was often confronted with workplace sexism. On one Sino-Soviet expedition along the Amur River, her male subordinates dared her to imbibe a shot of undiluted alcohol. Determined to put them all in their place, Dobruskina gulped down enough to fill an entire 250-milliliter glass (a shot is just 44 milliliters). Afterwards, the men on that team never tried to challenge her again.

6. ADOLF WINDAUS (1876-1959)

Another Nobel laureate who happened to have been born on Christmas Day, this Berlin native took home the 1928 Nobel Prize for chemistry. The award was granted to Windaus in recognition of the lifetime’s worth of research he’d conducted on sterols, a class of organic compounds that includes cholesterol. Windaus’s interest in this topic began shortly after he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Freiburg. At the time, little was known about sterols, and the scientist dedicated his career to plugging the gaps in our understanding of them. Through careful research, Windaus would discover that these compounds are closely akin to bile acids. He also learned that a fungal sterol called ergosterol can be utilized to cure rickets. Furthermore, it was Windaus who first determined the chemical composition of Vitamin D.

BONUS: ISAAC NEWTON (1642/43-1726/27)

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If you could somehow resurrect Isaac Newton for an interview, he’d tell you that he was born on December 25, 1642—but modern historians cite January 4, 1643 as his actual birthday.

Confused? Take it up with Julius Caesar. In 45 BCE, the Roman dictator implemented a standardized, 365-day calendar (with leap years every four years, eventually) we now call the “Julian calendar.” Unfortunately, it relied on astronomical calculations that overestimated the time it takes the Earth to complete one full rotation around the sun by 11 minutes and 14 seconds. As the centuries passed, those extra minutes and seconds added up; by the mid-1500s, the Julian calendar had fallen about 10 days out of sync with the planet’s rotation. Clearly, something had to be done. So in 1582 CE, Pope Gregory XIII mandated a new calendar. Dubbed the “Gregorian calendar,” it was designed to facilitate some much-needed leap year reform (among other things). The Pope also erased the synchronization problem that the Julian Calendar had created by eliminating 10 full days from 1582. So Thursday, October 4 of that year was immediately followed by Friday, October 15.

But while Roman Catholic countries like France and Spain adopted the Gregorian calendar right away, Great Britain—Newton’s birthplace—didn’t follow suit until 1752. When the UK and its colonies finally implemented this calendar, they did so by striking 11 days from existence, doing away with September 3 through September 13. At the time, Ben Franklin is said to have remarked, “It is pleasant for an old man to go to sleep on September 2 and not have to wake up until September 14.”

By then, Isaac Newton had been dead for years. According to the Julian Calendar, he was born in 1642 and died in 1726. However, for consistency’s sake, historians have retroactively adjusted all pre-1752 years to conform to the Gregorian calendar—so today’s scholars cite January 4, 1643 as Newton’s birthday and March 31, 1727 as his death day (another part of the reform was to move when the New Year was celebrated, meaning Newton died before the new year under the Julian Calendar, but after under Gregorian). So there you have it: Arguably the greatest scientist in history both is and isn’t a Christmas baby.

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Food
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
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Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Warner Home Video
25 Things to Look for While Watching the 24-Hour A Christmas Story Marathon
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Warner Home Video

You’ve probably seen A Christmas Story enough times that you never really need to watch it again. But watch it you will. And enjoy it, too. Even though you know every twist and turn it will take for our young hero Ralphie to finally get his hands on his much-desired Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. (An item he repeats 28 times throughout the film’s 94-minute running time; you could make an eggnog drinking game out of that.) 

This Christmas, when you inevitably tune into catch at least one airing of Bob Clark’s holiday classic during TBS’ 24-hour marathon, we’ve got a way for you to watch A Christmas Story in a whole new light: by keeping your eyes—and ears—peeled for these 25 blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em gaffes, anachronisms, and other fun facts that make watching the classic film an entirely new experience. 

1. RALPHIE DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO SPELL “CHRISTMAS.”

At least it doesn’t appear that way when he gets his Christmas theme—or shall we call it a Chistmas theme—back from Mrs. Shields, who also didn’t notice that the “R” is missing from the word.

2. JEAN SHEPHERD MAKES AN ON-SCREEN APPEARANCE.

If the voice of the man who brusquely informs Ralphie and Randy that the line to sit on Santa’s lap begins about two miles further back than they had anticipated sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the voice of the narrator, a.k.a. Adult Ralphie, who also happens to be Jean Shepherd, the man upon whose short stories the film itself is based. The woman behind Shepherd is his wife, Leigh Brown.

3. BOB CLARK JOINS IN THE CAMEO FUN.

Not to be outdone, director Bob Clark pops up in front of the camera, too, as Ralphie’s neighbor, Swede. He’s the guy who seems awfully curious about how Ralphie’s dad managed to snag himself a leg lamp. When The Old Man Parker informs him that it’s a Major Award, Swede responds: “Shucks, I wouldn’t know that. It looks like a lamp."

4. RALPHIE’S DAD IS NEVER GIVEN A NAME.

Over the years, a gaggle of sharp-eared A Christmas Story fans have pointed out that in Bob Clark’s scene, Ralphie’s dad is given a name: Hal. This is because they believed that in the brief exchange between the two neighbors, Swede asks of the leg lamp, “Damn Hal, you say you won it?” But a quick confer with the film’s original screenplay confirms that Swede’s actual query is, “Damn, hell, you say you won it?”

5. SPEAKING OF THE LEG LAMP…

The continuity folks must have been taking a coffee break during the unveiling of the leg lamp. Watch closely as the amount of packing debris covering The Old Man’s back and head changes from shot to shot. In one shot, his back is covered in the stuff; cut back and there’s nothing there.

6. IS THE LEG LAMP REALLY A LAMP?

In addition to being stumped by the word “fragile,” The Old Man—and the rest of the family—is initially confused as to what the leg’s purpose is. Is it a statue? (“Yeah, statue!”) One can’t blame them, as there’s no electrical cord to be seen. It’s just a leg. Yet, once the lampshade is discovered, the Parker clan is magically able to plug that titillating little fixture right in. 

7. ONE FINAL THING ABOUT THE LEG LAMP…

After witnessing the moment that Ralphie explains would become “a family controversy for years”—the breaking of the leg lamp—Mrs. Parker balks at her husband’s accusation that she would be jealous of a plastic lamp. But just moments before the “accident” in question, we hear the sound of breaking glass. And lots of it. Plastic doesn’t sound (or break) like that.

8. IS IT TORONTO OR IS IT INDIANA?

Though the film is set in Hohman, Indiana—a fictionalized town based on Shepherd’s hometown of Hammond, Indiana—parts of the film were shot in Toronto. This becomes apparent in some of the outdoor scenes, such as when the family is shopping for a Christmas tree, as one of the Toronto Transit Commission’s signature red trolley cars zooms by.

9. BOLTS VERSUS NUTS.

We all remember Ralphie’s reaction when his attempt to help his father fix a flat tire goes terribly awry. But here’s a fun fact that only true motorheads would pick up on: In the scene, Ralphie’s dad implores him to hold the hubcap horizontally so that he can put the “nuts” in it. But the 1938 Oldsmobile that he’s driving actually uses removable bolts. A fact that Shepherd confirms in his narration of the scene when he recalls that, “For one brief moment I saw all the bolts silhouetted against the lights of the traffic—and then they were gone.” Oh, fudge!

10. SCOTT SCHWARTZ IS NOT SCHWARTZ. BUT HE IS.

Ralphie’s two best friends are Schwartz, played by R.D. Robb, and Flick, played by Scott Schwartz. As if this tale of two Schwartzes weren’t confusing enough, when Ralphie tells his mom that it’s Schwartz who taught him how to drop the F-bomb, Mrs. Parker immediately calls the boy’s mother. But the voice we hear of fictional Schwartz taking a whooping is actually the voice of Scott Schwartz. Got it?

11. SCHWARTZ’S WHEREABOUTS.

Immediately following his unceremonious (and totally false) ratting out of his buddy, Ralphie remembers how “three blocks away, Schwartz was getting his.” In the original story, that may have very well been the case. But the film’s production called for Schwartz’s home to be just a few doors down from Ralphie’s, as we see as the kids walk to school together. Not three blocks away.

12. RALPHIE’S NOT A VERY GOOD LISTENER.

Ralphie felt understandably ripped off when, after weeks of waiting for his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, the first message he decoded was simply an advertisement for Ovaltine. But he’s lucky he could decipher the message at all, because a few of the numbers that he wrote down don’t match the numbers that announcer Pierre Andre broadcast, most notably the last one; Pierre said 25, Ralphie wrote 11.

13. UPPERCASE OR LOWERCASE?

Perhaps it’s that very error above that made it necessary for Ralphie to decode Annie’s message on at least two pieces of paper. How do we know that? Check out the difference in the “E” in the word “Be.” In the earlier shot, it’s an uppercase E; in the final message, the letter is lowercase. We’re on to you, Ralphie. 

14. FOR A SPORTS FAN, OLD MAN PARKER DOESN’T KNOW SPORTS.

Though the exact year of A Christmas Story’s setting is never stated, many of its context clues—including the makes and models of the cars we see and the popularity of The Wizard of Oz and Little Orphan Annie—put its year around 1939 or 1940. Yet in the beginning of the film, Mr. Parker becomes irate after reading in the paper that the White Sox “traded Bullfrog.” But the White Sox never traded Bill “Bullfrog” Dietrich, though they did release him on September 18, 1946, which would make this comment six years premature. He also refers to the Chicago Bears as the “Terror of the Midway,” when in fact their nickname is “Monsters of the Midway.”

15. THE CASE OF THE MYSTERIOUS LEVERS.

Old Man Parker seems to have a lot of non-human enemies—his car, the Bumpus hounds, and a seemingly possessed furnace among them. In one scene, The Old Man yells upstairs for someone to open the damper, which Mom does rather reluctantly. But watch closely when the camera cuts back to the levers, which are in the opposite position as Mom set them just seconds earlier.

16. DIVERSITY AS AN ANACHRONISM.

By the time A Christmas Story was released in 1983, racial segregation in Indiana public schools was a thing 34 years in the past. But if Ralphie’s story takes place any time before 1949, he would not have had any African American classmates, as he does in the film.

17. THE ROTATING BANANA.

Hoping to score some extra points with his teacher, Ralphie presents Mrs. Shields with the world’s largest fruit basket. It’s so large, in fact, that its individual pieces of fruit seem to have a mind of their own. Watch the way the banana shifts position each time the camera cuts back to Ralphie.

18. A DRAWER FULL OF UNIMAGINABLE MISCHIEF.

Ralphie and his classmates are a troublemaking lot. And when they decide to launch a classroom-wide prank in which they’re all wearing a set of false teeth, Mrs. Shields is well-prepared. She’s got a drawer full of pranks past, including a pair of chattering teeth … a gag gift that wasn’t actually invented until 1949.

19. SPEAKING OF TOOTHY ANACHRONISMS…

In his attempts to make Ralphie’s life a living hell, we get an up-close view of the braces worn by Scut the bully. They’re the kind that are directly bonded to the front of his teeth, a process that wasn’t invented until the 1970s. Until then, metal braces were wrapped around the teeth.

20. THREE-BARREL HINGED GLASSES WEREN’T A THING EITHER.

After nearly shooting his eye out on Christmas morning, Ralphie steps on his own glasses, revealing them to use a three-barrel hinge connector, which would not have been possible until the 1980s.

21. RALPHIE SHOOTS THREE TIMES, HITS FOUR.

When Ralphie is forced to defend his family against the rascally Black Bart (in his own imagination), he shoots three bad guys before his nemesis Bart escapes. But when the pile of bad guys is shown with their eyes X’ed out, there are four of them.

22. A VERY BING CHRISTMAS.

On Christmas morning, the Parkers kick back with that most classic of Christmas albums—Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas—in the background. As cherished a tradition as that may be, the album wasn’t released until 1945.

23. A BOWLING BALL FOR CHRISTMAS.

Old Man Parker is thrilled when his wife gifts him with a shiny new blue bowling ball for Christmas. There’s just one problem: colored bowling balls weren’t introduced until the 1960s. 

24. MELINDA DILLION GETS TOP BILLING.

Getting top billing must have been quite a thrill for actress Melinda Dillon… until the actual credits rolled and her name was spelled incorrectly!

25. FLASH GORDON GETS CREDIT, TOO.

Keep watching the end credits roll and you’ll see Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless among the names that scroll by. Though it never made the final cut, the credits for an additional fantasy sequence in which Ralphie and his trusty firearm help Flash Gordon face off against Ming remain.

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