Merry Christmas and an Academic New Year

This post originally appeared on my Guardian Higher Education blog.

Merry Christmas (REF is over). Hopefully you can breathe a sigh of relief and ease into a nice relaxing Christmas break. Or, if like me you have a long list of papers to finish, I hope this post will at least bring you a little bit of holiday cheer.

One of my favourite ways to get into the holiday mood is to bake something Christmassy; there is nothing quite like the smell of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves filling your house. As well as reminding you of Christmases past, it turns out that these spices produce chemicals similar to amphetamines when baked, potentially acting as a natural mood enhancer.

Once you are high on Lebkuchen, you are ready to put your feet up and sink into some Christmas-themed research. Highlights include Will climate change kill Santa Claus?, on the potential decline of Santa-themed tourism, and a rigorous analysis of 344 letters to Santa. Though kids ask for an average of seven gifts per letter, the jury is still out on whether or not gift giving is ultimately welfare enhancing.

While kids may love his gift-giving powers, this study shows that they are pretty ambivalent about actually meeting Santa in person. The facial expressions of children queuing to see Santa in a shopping centre were compared with a scale used to measure pain in medical settings. Of 300 children assessed, 247 were deemed “indifferent” to the prospect of meeting the mythical bearded man, while 47 were “hesitant”. By contrast, most of the accompanying adults wore “exhilarated” expressions, perhaps as a result of overenthusiastic attempts to get the kids to give a damn.

The author of the study suggests that Santa “may not be an important hero figure and might even be considered a stranger” to the children. However a survey conducted in Denmark counters that people perceive Santa as being as trustworthy as a doctor, and more friendly, despite his nonexistence.

The Canadian Medical Association, concerned about occupational health risks, has published a doctor’s referral for Mr Claus. Potential ailments include obesity and hypertension, respiratory problems caused by repeated exposure to ash in chimneys, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (he’s always making lists and checking them twice).

Rudolph may also have some health problems. I always assumed that his red nose was the result of a severe cold, however one academic argues that Rudolph is in fact suffering from a parasitic infection of his respiratory system.

Speaking of Rudolph, the chemists may be interested to learn of two chemicals, rudolphomycin and rednose. The paper detailing these chemicals was submitted to the journal on December 21st (1978). While the journal allowed the silly name to stand, the chemist was rebuked by his boss for not taking his job seriously enough.

An excellent contribution to the Christmas literature came this year from Laura Birg and Anna Goeddeke. Their comprehensive review of Christmas economics highlights some interesting trends: the US stock market surges in the pre-holiday period, though this effect is decreasing over time (in New Zealand the effect is increasing); alcohol consumption and related accidents and deaths spike during the holidays, though suicides decrease; and the number of people dying of cardiovascular diseases increases markedly, though the exact reasons for this are unclear.

Women do most of the Christmas shopping, men are happier, and more kids are conceived – no causal link has been established between these three observations.

The week on Twitter

The academic Twittersphere has been particularly full of Christmas cheer this week. The hashtag #XmasSongPapers is being used to reframe famous Christmas song titles as academic papers:

Meanwhile, a handful of creative academics have been converting their left over draft manuscripts into office decorations:

Finally, while I was doing my PhD, we created this beautiful Christmas tree from old boxes left over from an IT delivery:

Box Tree

Have a go at some #XmasSongPapers or #DraftFlakes, and let me know what your#AcademicXmas plans are – @AcademiaObscura.

The First Annual Academics In Hats Awards

We recently managed to get the hashtag #AcademicsInHats doing the rounds on twitter.

Best In Show

The Prize1 for Best In Show at the 1st Annual Academia Obscura Academics in Hats Awards goes to Dr. Matt Lodder. His lovely hat, combined with a fantastic moustache and custom artwork makes him simply irresistible. Matt is an Art historian and the Director of US Studies at the University of Essex. He is currently Writing a history of tattoos as art.

Congratulations, Matt!


Best Photography

The award for Best Photography goes to Camilla Ulleland Hoel, a Norweigan academic into Victorian/20th-21st c. literature. Her beautiful photo evokes the very essence of academia – head in a book, tweed waistcoat, and a glass of what we can only assume is whisky. An all round beautiful photo.

Camilla Hoel

Best Couple

We simply could not choose only one winner for the couples category, so we decided to jointly award the two following pairs for their sterling efforts.

Aimee Eckhart, PhD student in cancer biology and self-professed lover of science and tea, and Jon Tennant, PhD student in palaeontology.

Aimee Eckhart, PhD student in cancer biology and self-professed lover of science and tea, and Jon Tennant, PhD student in palaeontology.

Rhonda Ragsdale and her as-yet-unidentified partner, both dressed in their finest formal wear.

Rhonda Ragsdale and her as-yet-unidentified partner, both dressed in their finest formal wear.

Most Hats

The prestigious award for Most Hats goes to Jason Davies, an interdisciplinary academic at University College London. Jason’s specialities evidently include wearing multiple hats, as he manages an astounding 7 in this photo. Extra points for the Christmas cheer!


Most Hats – Runner Up

Dieter Hochuli, an ecologist at Sydney University, deserves a special mention in the Most Hats category. Although our expert hat counters only spotted 6 hats, Dieter ingeniously links his hat wearing to his discipline, noting his resemblance to an Australian moth colloquially known as the ‘Mad Hatterpillar‘ for its unusual exoskeleton.


Best Accompanying Facial Expression

The Best Facial Expression While Wearing a Hat award goes to Northern Bloke Stephen Etheridge. As well as researching brass bands, the working class and the north, he can also pull one hell of a grumpy face!


Best Photoshop

By far the best photoshop effort is the result of a cross-channel collaboration between French researcher François-Xavier Coudert (pictured) and Scottish researcher Graham Shaw. While the pirate hat is original, the addition of a parrot and the atmospheric B&W are the result of some world-class photo manipulation skills.


Best Impersonation

The award for Best Impersonation goes to French researcher Sylvain Deville who, whether he intended to or not, bears more than a passing resemblance to Woody from Toy Story:


Best Animal Hat

Sarah V Melton, a PhD candidate at Emory University, fought off some stiff competition to win the Animal Hats category, which proved particular popular. Though it was very difficult to choose a winner, Sarah’s entry shone through by continuing the academic tradition of being unhealthily interested in penguins.


Not a Hat

Jessica Sage and David Webster came close to wearing hats, but our esteemed panel of judges2 deemed that, in fact, bike helmets don’t really count. As a compromise, they have been jointly awarded the ‘Not a Hat’ prize.



Also Ran

Last, and perhaps also least, we have the ‘also rans’.

Andres Guadamuz tried to pass off this llama as an academic in a hat:



Julia Largent didn’t have a hat to hand so she photoshopped one into her twitter profile picture:


And finally, this kid wore a mortarboard with a giant chicken wing on it to graduation.


Pleas do not despair if you were not awarded a prize this time around. Come back next year with your best hat and have another go. Or, given the unlikelihood of this ever happening again, continue to contribute your photos on twitter to #AcademicsWithHats, and we’ll update his prestigious list as we see fit.

Thanks to all those that took part!

  1. Please note, there is no actual prize.
  2. Really just me.

Trick or Treat?

This is a slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Guardian Higher Education blog.

Crime writers often refer to the ‘smell of death’ lingering in the air after a grisly murder scene is encountered. Indeed, decay starts 4 minutes after death, and produces a smell comprising a complex mélange of 800+ ‘cadaveric volatile compounds’. In a PLOS One article, a team of researchers studied a decaying pig using ‘Comprehensive Two-Dimensional Gas Chromatography-Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry’ (Image: warning, not very pretty). One other study investigating this topic was published in the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry (which rather satisfyingly abbreviates to Anal Bioanal Chem when cited). While pigs are a fairly decent approximation of humans in such contexts, the study failed to detect two compounds, cadaverine and putrescine, usually found in decaying human cadavers. Lovely.

Sticking with death for the moment, you may recall reports of imminent doomsday due to the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. A paper entitled The Mayan Doomsday’s effect on survival outcomes in clinical trials considered how research might be affected by our then-imminent extinction. While such trials would become useless, rigorous computer modelling showed that population actually begins to increase in the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse, even when controlling for known sources of bias (including “astronauts currently aboard the international space station… Dungeons and Dragons players, men who have read Fifty Shades of Grey and other similar beings likely to be unaffected by the apocalypse”). The only plausible explanation, obviously, is a postapocalyptic zombie repopulation.

While the world did not, in fact, end in 2012, zombies, and other mythical/undead beings nonetheless remain a concern. A truly excellent paper in Skeptical Inquirer aims to explain away zombies, ghosts, and vampires with the power of maths and physics, even though Buffy or a crossbow would definitely be way cooler. The authors start with ghosts, firstly explaining that the ‘cold chills’ often experienced in haunted houses are actually just a result of poor insulation (no EU building regs in the olden days), and secondly noting the rather amusing paradox that ghosts are often portrayed as walking, despite having no physical body. As the authors point out, “it seems strange to have a supernatural power that only allows you to get around by mimicking human ambulation… a very slow and awkward way of moving about in the scheme of things”.

Then comes vampires. Assuming vampires only feed once a month (“a highly conservative assumption given any Hollywood vampire film”), and that each time a vampire feasts upon a human their respective populations increase/decrease by 1, a simple geometric progression suggests that vampires would wipe out humans in approximately 2.5 years (assuming arbitrarily that the first vampire appeared in the year 1400). There is no way that human birth rates could outpace this, so our very existence contradicts the existence of vampires. Evidently the creator of the vampire legend failed maths.

A Norwegian study, however, believes vampires are real and that “the Balkan region has been especially haunted”. Is it possible, they ask, to repel vampires with garlic? As no vampires were available for study, leeches were used instead (hey, if pigs are a good enough approximation for humans…). As it happens, leeches by far prefer a hand smeared in garlic to one without. To ensure the future survival of the human race, the authors recommend tight restrictions be placed on the use of garlic. Speaking of vampire bites, vampire bats have a glycoprotein in their saliva that keeps the blood of the bitten victim from clotting while the bat is drinking (it is called Draculin).

Finally, we can dispense with zombies. The usual zombie paradigm is similar to vampires, thus the same mathematical logic applies. However, it is apparently also possible to be zombified by the voodoo hex of vexed enemy. In one curious case, Haitian boy Wilfrid Doricent appeared to be dead, but returned after death, without memory or effective cognition, having dug himself out of his own grave. Bizarrely, the zombie effects appear to have been cause by a poison brewed by an angry uncle, using the toxin from a puffer fish similar to that used in the Japanese delicacy Fugu. The brain damage was simply a result of hypoxia (due to the lack of oxygen available in a grave).

Scariest Pumpkin I’ve Seen This Week


Most Mortal Stationary I’ve Seen this Week

Staplers. Courtesy of The Lives and Deaths of Academic Staplers


After collecting morbidity and mortality data for three semesters, I am now ending my study of staplers. The final finding: On average, my library’s reference desk staplers succumbed after 46.5 days of service.