Lights in the darkness

Published December 01 2017

EMILY HUFF/ASBMB Years ago, I read somewhere that people who live in Alaska sleep as much as 14 hours a night in winter. That makes perfect sense to me. It’s cold up there near the Arctic Circle. And dark. Clearly, the best place to be is snuggled under the covers. I’ll take my 14 hours with a side order of purring cat, thank you very much.

And it’s not just me or those snoring Alaskans. Most life-forms appear to be biochemically wired to slow down when it’s dark — mimosa plants, fruit flies, mice. For figuring out some of the science behind that seemingly obvious fact more than 30 years ago, three scientists in the U.S. won the 2017 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology. To mark this honor, science writer John Arnst takes a dive into circadian rhythms in this issue. As the December darkness falls, this seems like a suitably fascinating topic to curl up with.

But we humans don’t go gently into any good night. In this season of slumber, we like to celebrate with light and warmth. It’s no accident that December is crammed full of big, bright holidays. The celebration of the birth of Jesus and its very important star in the east got conveniently scheduled right around the Romans’ big solstice party, conflating Jesus’ arrival as the son/sun with the time when dark winter days started to get longer. Hanukkah grew from a lamp-lighting commemoration of the rededication of an ancient temple into a big gift-giving affair largely, some say, due to its proximity to Christmas. And the harvest festival of Kwanzaa, falling the week after Christmas, is marked with, among other things, a candelabra with seven flames. Then come the fireworks of New Year’s Eve. So much light in the December darkness.

If you celebrate any or all of the aforementioned holidays, you should take a look at our gift guide and find something fun to give the scientists in your life (or yourself). And if you like to decorate for the holidays with scientific flair — as designer Valery Masterson did for our elegant cover photo by Emily Huff — we’d love to see your creations for the table, door, hearth or tree. Please snap a photo and share it with us on Facebook or Twitter.

Have a bright and festive December. If you’re in Alaska, sweet dreams.

Comfort Dorn Comfort Dorn is the managing editor of ASBMB Today.