Santa physics

A few years ago I wrote a column about the fledging science of “clausotechnolometry,” the study of the advanced technology of Santa Claus. Well, time marches on, and this year I am pleased to be able to bring you the results of exciting new research into this field.

Santa Claus has been the subject of hot scientific debate in the years since I last wrote about clausotechnolometry. That’s because Santa’s very existence poses serious questions to our understanding of physics and the limits of technology.

This was highlighted by an article written by physicist Joseph A. Brendler in Spy magazine. Brendler outlined the results of calculations that seemed to prove that, if Santa ever did deliever presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.

Here’s how his reasoning went. First, Brendler assumed that Santa delivers toys only to Christian children, which, he estimated, total around 378 million, in a total of 91.8 million homes, each of which, presumably, has at least one good child. Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, Brendler then assumed, thanks to different time zones and the rotation of the Earth, if he travels east to west. That gives him only 1/1000th of a second to park the sleigh, slide down the chimney, deliver presents, eat snacks, get back into the sleigh and go to the next house. Even if houses were evenly distributed around the Earth (which they aren’t), Brendler said, Santa would have to travel 120 million kilometres within those 31 hours. That works out to 1,040 kilometres per second, about 3,000 times the speed of sound. (Even our fastest deep-space probes only travel at around 43.8 kilometres per second.)

Next, Brendler attempted to estimate the weight of Santa’s cargo. Basing his calculations on a gift of an average size Lego (less than a kilogram in weight) per child, he estimated the sleigh would weigh around 292,000 tonnes. Even granting that flying reindeer can pull 10 times as much weight as ordinary reindeer, Brendler estimated that 214,2000 reindeer would be required to move such a load, which in turn would increase the payload by another 30,000 tonnes or so.

That amount of weight moving at 650 miles per second through the atmosphere would cause enormous friction, Brendler calculated. Not only would deafening sonic booms result, but the lead reindeer would absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy per second each, bursting into flame instantly. The entire reindeer team and, presumably, Santa himself, would be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second, and if that weren’t enough, Santa would be subject to a centrifugal force equal to 17,500 times the force of gravity, which would pin him to the back of his sleigh with 1,961 tonnes of force.

Brendler’s conclusion was that if Santa ever did deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now. But that, of course, is absurd; we all know Santa exists–we see the evidence every year in the form of stuffed stockings, trees with presents under them, and milk and cookies eaten. That leaves us with the difficulty task of explaining scientifically how Santa achieves his incredible feat.

This year, writer Roger Highfield has come out with a new book, The Physics of Christmas (published by Little, Brown & Company, Inc.) which gathers together the latest research by dedicated clausotechnolometrists (although Highfield, writing as he is for the general public, does not use this term). The apparently insurmountable problems pointed out by Brendler are not insurmountable at all, it appears, given sufficiently advanced technology.

In his calculations, Highfield even assumes Santa delivers to all children, not just Christian children (a reasonable assumption, given that Christmas’s roots are as pagan, if not more so, than they are Christian). That makes the task even more daunting, even though Highfield allows a full 48 hours for Santa to accomplish the task, by starting at the international date line at midnight on December 24 and travelling backward against the Earth’s rotation. By Highfield’s calculations, Santa has only 2/10,000 of a second to visit each household and must travel at a whopping 2,046 kilometres per second, or 6,395 times the speed of sound. Acceleration forces are even greater using these figures–Santa is subjected to two billion times the acceleration fighter pilots experience. And since Santa is delivering to all children in the world, his cargo is even heavier than Brendler assumed–it weighs about 1,914,545 tonnes.

So how does Santa generate such great speeds? How does he survive the acceleration and air friction? And why aren’t there sonic booms?

First, acceleration: Santa, it appears, has technology similar to that postulated in Star Trek–“inertial dampers” that protect him from the forces of acceleration and deceleration. Essentially, his sleigh is an artificial world with its own gravitational field that counteracts these forces.

This idea of Santa’s sleigh being its own little world, in fact, permeates, the current theories of clausotechnolometrists, as outlined in Highfield’s book. Larry Silverberg, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University and a member of NASA’s Mars Mission Research Center, says Santa has apparently figured out a way to (again a la Star Trek) warp space; that is, his sleigh moves in its own little bubble of space separate and apart from the ordinary space-time continuum. Within that bubble of space, Santa’s sleigh never moves fast enough to cause him any problems–but the bubble of space itself can move as fast as it wants, even faster than the speed of light, through regular space-time. Santa apparently has the technology to cause space behind the sleigh to expand and space in front of it to contract. This literally brings the next chimney he’s visiting closer, so he can get there faster. The plausibility of this approach has been demonstrated mathematically by Miguel Alcubierre at Cardiff University in Wales, Highfield reports.

Santa may also make use of wormholes, shortcuts through space-time that take you from one place to the other without passing through any of the space in between. (Think of space-time as a curved sheet of paper. A wormhole would cut straight across from one point to the next, ignoring the fold.)

Sonic booms wouldn’t be a problem using either of these technologies, but even if they were, they could be cancelled out by special “anti-boom boxes” on Santa’s sleigh that generate sound waves that exactly cancel those of the sonic booms. As for air friction–again, if Santa is using space-time warping or wormholes, it might not be a problem, but even if it is, Silverberg and colleagues postulate, Santa could get around by providing deer and sleigh with heat shielding–probably a Kevlar-like composite fibre encapuslated in an epoxy resin matrix, which would be strong, light-weight, durable and cold-resistance. The presence of such a heat shield would make Santa and his sleigh glow bright red like a meteor as it soared across the sky, something thousands of children have seen for themselves on Christmas Eve.

As for the size of Santa’s sleigh, and the need for hundreds of thousands of reindeer to pull it–that’s obviously nonsense. Santa’s sleigh is exactly the size it’s usually pictured. It’s not just a box on runners, though–far from it. It Silverberg claims, “a hierachical distributed mobile manufacturing system” which makes the gifts on-site in each child’s home using nanotechnology, sub-microscopic robots that, properly programmed, can build anything atom by atom using nothing more than the soot and snow Santa collects along his route. (Highfield doesn’t mention it, but it seems likely that the “elves” that supposedly make toys for Santa are either a misunderstanding of the true nanotechnological nature of “Santa’s little helpers,” or are really highly advance technical geniuses, probably from another planet.)

I’ve often written about the aerotarandusdynamics, the science of flying reindeer, and Highfield mentions one or two theories in the field, basically refinements of the theories I’ve explained several times, about how the reindeer are filled with lighter-than-air gases (the “gas-bag theory”) and how their flat, hand-shaped reindeer are really the key to their flight, generating lift.

Finally, there’s the question of how Santa knows who’s been good and what they want for Christmas. Four years ago when I wrote on clausotechnolometry, the best guess was that Santa used his own network of surveillance satellites, coupled with listening devices and miniature cameras planted each year during his rounds. Silverberg, however, thinks that Santa uses a multi-grid antenna system that picks up electromagnetic signals from chidlren’s brains, making use of a system called magnetoencephalography which uses a superconducting quantum interference device (or SQUID) to detect minute magnetic fields generated by brain activity. Whichever method Santa uses, it’s obviously coupled to powerful computer systems capable of ascertaining who has been naughty or nice, and where they live.

There’s still much to learn about Santa and his technology. We all owe a debt of thanks to the dedicated clausotechnolometrists described in Roger Highfield’s new book, and a debt of thanks to Highfield for publicizing their selfless labors in this oft-neglected field.

Does Santa exist? Of course he does! And someday, his scientific secrets will be ours.

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