Yes. It’s not only possible, but we have actual time travelers walking among us today. According to the Theory of Relativity, it is possible for speed or gravity to make time pass differently for separate observers. If that sounds vague and science-y, maybe a real-world example will help: if highly accurate, atomic clocks are aligned perfectly on earth, and one of those is sent into space, then one of those clocks will run faster than the other one. This is not caused by a mechanical problem with the clock, but happens through time itself being bent by the forces involved in space travel. So, all of those astronauts hanging out on the space station? Their time is passing faster than ours, and when they return to earth, they are actually younger than they would be if they had remained here. Ok, so not much younger, but it’s still true. Michael Finke and Peggy Whitson, who have spent more time on the space station than any other American man and woman, are 0.0093 and 0.0092 seconds younger, to be exact. And the man who has spent more time on the space station than anyone in history—Russia’s Sergei Krikalev, with 803 days in orbit—is a full 0.02 seconds younger! Maybe one day we will be able to reverse the time dilation, and these explorers can tell us about the wonders of life half a second in the future!
A Polterabend, of course! Traditionally, German nuptials are preceded by an all-night fest that invites guests to smash dishes, tiles, pottery, even toilets—anything ceramic or porcelain. It’s not just a bunch of Germans getting really betrunken and breaking their ceramic steins accidentally. Nein. It’s a deliberate campaign to produce a mess of ceramic shards which, in the end, the lucky bride and groom-to-be have to clean up. This wantonly medieval destruction of dishware may symbolize a precious occasion that cannot be repeated (just as you can’t really reassemble a cup that’s smashed to smithereens). And the happy couple’s janitorial duty is meant to symbolize working together through future adversity—“picking up the pieces” when things get messy. But what does this oddly endearing ritual have to do with the supernatural? In a word: words! Polterabend is a combo of the German verb poltern (to make a racket) and Abend (evening). Essentially, it means “an evening of disruptive pottery smashing.” Seriously, in Germany you might receive an invitation that’s something like “Gerhard and Eva cordially invite you for an evening of symbolic china destruction. Regrets only.” But if the new Herr and Frau are unlucky enough to find a poltergeist (disruptive + ghost) in their new home, they could be in for another, more frightening round of dishware disruption. As if an all-night session of destroying brain cells, dodging sharp, flying shards of porcelain, and a big clean-up at the end weren’t intimidating enough…
Most of us have had it pounded into our heads by dedicated English teachers that our adverbs should end with “ly.” We should “study diligently” instead of “study diligent,” and heaven help the child who tries to “talk correct.” But it turns out, this “ly” bias has not always been the case. For example, in the Old Testament, King Darius is “exceeding glad” that Daniel wasn’t eaten by lions. When Daniel Defoe was wanted to describe the weather on Robinson Crusoe’s island, he did so by saying it was “excessive hot” and the sea was “dreadful high.” It wasn’t until the 18th century when diehard grammar enthusiasts began insisting on an “ly” in order to distinguish between adverbs and adjectives. And yet some flat adverbs have stuck with is. We sleep tight, rather than tightly. Time goes fast, rather than fastly. And, of course, we all work very hard at work, rather than working hardly.
Rocks don’t seem very fast, what with their lack of mobility and all. But they simply don’t let that stop them. The largest rocks on earth—our tectonic plates—move at cruising speeds reaching 2 inches per year. And falling rocks can really pick up speed, of course, as they accelerate at a rate of 32.174 ft/s2. In contrast, it has been much more difficult to calculate the speed of the mysterious sailing stones in Death Valley National Park. These rocks, ranging from pebbles to slabs weighing hundreds of pounds, are found scattered around the parched, dirt surface of the Racetrack Playa with what appear to be skid marks behind them, tracing a path hundreds of feet long and not always in a straight line. While these tracks have been observed for at least a hundred years, the rocks’ movement only occurs every few years, and it has never actually been observed by humans. Until 2013. In December of that year, some researchers used time lapse photography and GPS tracking, and were able to document the movement of 60 different stones. It turns out that, under certain winter conditions, a sheet of ice just millimeters thick that forms on the ground, providing a low-friction surface across which stones can slide when blown by the wind—moving up to 200 meters in a month.
Humans aren’t the only species that delights in delivering unexpected little surprises to the ones they love. Anyone with a cat is probably well aware of this fact. Dropping its prey for you to find later on your doorstep is an act of generosity—like delivering a furry fruitcake for you to nibble on. But such generosity is not limited to domesticated animals. A 2007 study showed that rats who had been helped by other rats were likely to “pay it forward” when they saw another rat in need. The males of some species of spider woo their mates by offering delectable treats wrapped in silk. (Although some male spiders can be a real Grinch, and trick the female by wrapping up something completely inedible, like seeds, prey that he has already eaten, or a fruitcake.) Vampire bats are known to share blood with the less fortunate who were unable to find prey during their feeding hours. But perhaps the sweetest gift of all is the gift of cyanide, which the male, six-spot burnet moth gives to his mate. Sure, cyanide is poisonous, but the female knows just how to transform it into a substance that keeps unwanted visitors at a distance. Like fruitcake.
It’s a Christmas epiphany! From Dasher and Dancer to Comet and Cupid, the gender-neutral names and majestic antlers of Santa’s reindeer suggested that they were predominantly male. Take a closer look, however, and you’ll see that female reindeer are not only better equipped for the midnight flight, but they also fit the classic description of Santa’s sleigh pullers perfectly. Around Christmas time in the wild, the average male reindeer can carry as little as 5% body fat, while the female has about 50%. These extra layers keep them extra warm in temperatures as low as minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit—an advantage that would definitely come in handy while flying all over the world. But the ultimate proof that Santa’s reindeer are female is the iconic silhouette. Around Christmas, male reindeer lose their antlers, which means that those antlered reindeer in the sky have to be ladies! How’s that for a little bit of girl power with your holiday cheer?
All over the world, you find different traditions for holiday giving. Many countries, including the United States, hang stockings by the fireplace for Santa Clause to fill on Christmas Eve. In Germany, St. Nicholas leaves small toys and candy in children’s shoes on his saint day in early December, as does the good witch la Befana on January 6 for children in Italy. But perhaps the most unusual tradition comes from the Catalonia region in Spain. There children are given treats on Christmas Even by Tió de Nadal—the Christmas Log. Beginning on December 8 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), children give the Christmas Log a cozy place to live, “feeding” it a little food from their dinner each night, and even giving it a blanket to keep warm. On Christmas Eve, the children are sent into another room to pray for the tio to deliver lots of presents, and while they are doing so, the adults quickly hide candy and other treats under the log’s blanket. When the children return, they command the log to poop. They sing songs while hitting it with a stick in order to help it do so, and after each song, an adult reaches under the blanket to reveal another goodie that the log has produced. It gives one reason to be grateful that America has decided to stick with stockings.
Sure, large stretches of Russia are essentially a frozen wasteland for half of the year, but that’s no reason not to have fun. In fact, starting in the 17th century, the Russians developed a unique winter pastime. Called the Russian Mountain, it involved a scaffolding (sometimes up to 200 feet tall) built to support a wooden ramp, which would then be covered with ice to create an instant, high-adrenaline sledding hill. The Russian Mountains were so popular that Catherine the Great not only demanded to have one built at her private residence, but it also required that it be available for her use during the summer as well. That presented a bit of a problem. But after some thought, her enterprising engineers came up with a modified version that, instead of relying on ice, used wheels to send its toboggans careening along a sloping track. Enterprising businessmen began to copy this new thrill ride—which one might describe as involving rolling and coasting—all across Europe and eventually across the Atlantic, where innovations like the circular track and the “lift hill” were perfected. Ironically, when the new, American-style roller coasters began to pop up in Russia a hundred years later, they were known as “American Mountains.”