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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1997

By Elizabeth Royte

I've heard that kissing under mistletoe was a pagan fertility rite long before it became a Christmas tradition. True?
— Lars Smitts,Tempe, Arizona

People have believed in the special powers of mistletoe, Viscum album, since the Bronze Age. Druids thought the plant was heaven-sent, perhaps because it seems to appear out of nowhere: It's a parasite that taps its rootlike "sinkers" into a host tree and literally sucks the life juices out of it. It grows slowly, ruthlessly, and doesn't die until its host dies. At the winter solstice, a white-robed Druid priest would climb an oak and use a golden sickle to harvest mistletoe, which most ancient Europeans considered a cure-all, good for toothache, epilepsy, and yes, infertility. (Today we know that mistletoe is quite poisonous, though researchers recently found that a leaf extract may inhibit the growth of cancer cells and bolster the immune system.) In ancient Rome, the plant was also regarded as a symbol of peace. Enemies would discard their weapons under a sprig, declare a truce, and embrace. It was in Victorian England, however, that smooching under mistletoe became fashionable as a romantic Yuletide tradition — and it continues today as the one occasion each year when Brits actually touch.

Why do women feel cold sooner than men?
— Betsy Bartel, Bellvue, Colorado

This is one of those weird perception-versus-reality deals that's hard to parse. First the reality part: Women do tend to have a greater ratio of surface area to body mass than do men, so they lose heat faster. And women are four times more likely than men to develop Raynaud's disease, a malady in which blood vessels in the extremities suddenly constrict, causing fingers and toes to blanch and grow exaggeratedly cold. But curiously, far fewer women suffer frostbite or freeze to death than men. Why? Here's where the perception part comes in: Dr. Murray Hamlet of the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine raises the intriguing possibility that women may just have a more finely tuned survival mechanism. "If we stuck our hands in ice water, I'd probably be able to keep mine in longer," he says. "Is it because your blood vessels constrict sooner, or because you perceive cold sooner? Perception, I'd say, is the better part of survival."

What are those weird antennas on top of a giraffe's head?
— G. Hayward, Toronto, Ontario

Those aren't antennae-they're skin-covered horns. Both males and females sport them, but they have no positively proven purpose-though it's possible that they serve as cooling towers. "The horns are heavily vascular, with an open bone structure," says large-mammal specialist John Lehnhardt. "They may provide a heat-dispersal opportunity." The male's horns come into play during sparring sessions, but they do no damage — sort of like jousting with a pair of carrots.

Was Indiana Jones based on a real person?
— Gail Alberta, Mill Valley, California

Any archaeology department worth its salt has at least one professor eager to take credit for inspiring the Lucas/Spielberg hero. The most commonly touted model is the late Roy Chapman Andrews, who led the American Museum of Natural History's 1920s expedition to the Gobi Desert. He discovered the first fossil dinosaur eggs, but he never fled a cave pursued by a malevolent boulder. Vendyl Jones, an archaeologist in Israel, and Roy Mackal, a Chicago cryptozoologist, are also oft-cited, as is Montana paleontologist Jack Horner. For his part, Lucas insists Indy is an original. "We have no confirmation of real-life models," says a testy spokeswoman at Lucasfilms. "Look, it's only a movie."

On the eighth, the moon will be near Saturn, with an occultation of the ringed planet visible in Hawaii and on the southwestern edge of North America. By the evening of the tenth, Venus will be a crescent that can be seen with binoculars, particularly at sunset. On the 12th, the Moon will be among the group of stars known as the Hyades, occulting the bright star Aldebaran in most of North America. The full Moon occurs on the 13th. The winter solstice comes at 4:43 p.m. eastern time on the 21st, the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the shortest day of the year. Christmas Day, four days later, also happens to be the 355th anniversary of the birth of Isaac Newton. — David N. Schramm

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