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What makes Christmas movies so popular
These films offer viewers a glimpse into the world as it is could be.
If you are one of those people who will settle in this evening with a hot cup of apple cider to watch a holiday movie, you are not alone. Holiday movies have become firmly embedded in Americans' winter celebrations.
The New York Times reports a massive increase in new holiday movies this year. Disney, Netflix, Lifetime and Hallmark are now in direct competition for viewers' attention, with both new releases and reruns of the classics.
Holiday movies are so popular not simply because they are “escapes," as my research on the relation between religion and cinema argues. Rather, these films offer viewers a glimpse into the world as it is could be.
Christmas movies as reflection
This is particularly true with Christmas movies.
In his 2016 book “Christmas as Religion," the religious studies scholar Christopher Deacy states that Christmas movies act as a “barometer of how we might want to live and how we might see and measure ourselves."
These movies offer a variety of portraits of everyday life while affirming ethical values and social mores along the way.
The 1946 classic “It's a Wonderful Life" – about a man who longs to travel but remains stuck in his childhood town – represents visions of a community in which every citizen is a vital component.
Another movie commonly replayed this time of year is 2005's “The Family Stone" which portrays the clashes of a mostly average family but shows viewers that quarrels can be worked through and harmony is possible.
The 2003 British holiday film “Love Actually," which follows the lives of eight couples in London, brings to viewers the perennial theme of romance and the trials of relationships.
Vera-Ellen, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby dressed in Christmas stage costumes in a scene from the film 'White Christmas', 1954.
Movie watching as ritual practice
As holiday movies bring viewers into a fictional world, people are able to work through their own fears and desires about self-worth and relationships. Such movies can provide solace, reaffirmation and sometimes even courage to continue working through difficult situations. The movies offer hope in believing it all might turn out alright in the end.
When people see some part of their own lives unfold on screen, the act of viewing operates in a fashion that's strikingly similar to how a religious ritual works.
As anthropologist Bobby Alexander explains, rituals are actions that transform people's everyday lives. Rituals can open up "ordinary life to ultimate reality or some transcendent being or force," he writes in the collection "Anthropology of Religion."
For example, for Jews and Christians, ritually observing the Sabbath day by sharing meals with family and not working connects them with the creation of the world. Prayer rituals in the Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions connect those praying with their God, as well as with their fellow believers.
Holiday movies do something similar, except that the "transcendent force" they make viewers feel is not about God or another supreme being. Instead, this force is more secular: It's the power of family, true love, the meaning of home or the reconciliation of relationships.
Movies create an idealized world
Take the case of the 1942 musical "Holiday Inn." It was one of the first movies – after the silent era's various versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" – where the plot used Christmas as a backdrop, telling the story of a group of entertainers who have gathered at a country inn.
In reality, it was a deeply secular film about romantic interests, couched in a desire to sing and dance. When it was released, the United States had been fully involved in the World War II for a year and national spirits were not high.
The movie hasn't endured as a classic. But Bing Crosby's song "White Christmas," which appeared in it, quickly became etched in the holiday consciousness of many Americans, and a 1954 film called "White Christmas" became better known.
As historian Penne Restad puts it in her 1995 book "Christmas in America," Crosby's crooning offers the "quintessential expression" of the holidays, a world which "has no dark side" – one in which "war is forgotten."
In subsequent Christmas movies, the main plots have not been set in the context of war, yet there is nonetheless often a battle: that of overcoming a materialistic, gift-buying and gift-giving kind of holiday.
Movies like "Jingle all the Way," "Deck the Halls" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" center around the idea that the true meaning of Christmas is not in rampant consumerism but in goodwill and family love.
Dr. Seuss's famously grouchy Grinch thinks he can ruin Christmas by taking all the gifts away. But as the people gather together, giftless, they join hands and sing while the narrator tells viewers, "Christmas came anyway."
A scene from the 1966 TV movie "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"
"All's right with the world"
Though Christmas is a Christian holiday, most holiday films are not religious in the traditional sense. There is hardly ever a mention of Jesus or the biblical setting of his birth.
As media studies scholar John Mundy writes in a 2008 essay, "Christmas and the Movies," "Hollywood movies continue to construct Christmas as an alternative reality."
These movies create on-screen worlds that kindle positive emotions while offering a few laughs.
"A Christmas Story," from 1983, waxes nostalgic for childhood holidays when life seemed simpler and the desire for a Red Ryder air rifle was the most important thing in the world. The plot of 2003's "Elf" centers on the quest to reunite with a lost father.
In the end, as the narrator says late in "A Christmas Story" – after the family has overcome a serious of risible mishaps, the presents have been unwrapped and they've gathered for Christmas goose – these are times when "all's right with the world."
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Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."