How Physics Killed Santa Claus

“Yes, Virginia,” wrote Francis P. Church, editor of the New York Sun, in 1897, “there is a Santa Claus.”

But when Virginia got a little older and took high school physics, her doubts returned. Big time.

Let’s see how she thought about the matter.

Virginia used round numbers, as befitted someone who had yet to encounter advanced mathematics. She started off with the idea that Santa had 29 hours to complete his appointed rounds. She came up with 29 by figuring that Santa had to visit within the six hours during which children could be assumed to be sleeping–say, between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. (If you don’t think kids get up on Christmas morning at 5 a.m., you don’t have kids or it’s been too long since you were one.)

So Santa has a six-hour window. But the earth rotates through its 24 hour-long time zones, of course. Therefore Santa has 24 hours plus five more. Imagine if Santa took one hour to cover each of the first 23 zones. Then, when he started the last one, #24, he would have six hours to cover it. Thus 29 total.

Virginia was pretty sure that “29” was harder to work with than “30,” so she rounded up to 30.

Next, she used a really round number: 2 billion. She figured that that’s the number of Christians in the world plus others who would celebrate Christmas. Maybe more people than that would celebrate it, in fact, but she didn’t want to make it harder for Santa than she had to.

Then she figured that, given that many people live in families and other domestic groupings, Santa could visit, say, 3 people at a time on average.

Two billion people, then, divided into groups of three meant that Santa would have to make about 667 million visits on Christmas Eve and he had to do so in 30 hours. Thus Santa had to make 22 million visits per hour, or 6200 visits every second. (667M visits / 30 hours (or 3600 seconds per hour) = 6200 visits per second)

Let’s suppose each of the families is, on average, a mile apart. Virginia’s math was certainly not equal to the task of figuring out how far Santa in fact would have to travel to visit everyone, given that many were clustered in cities and some were scattered over, say, the wide open spaces of the Australian outback, the American west, and the Canadian and Russian north. So she settled on one visit per mile. This gave her the convenient calculation that Santa would have to move at an average of 6200 miles per second (mps).

And that meant that Santa couldn’t do it.

The g forces to accelerate almost instantly to a speed that averaged 6200 mps would certainly have pulled the antlers (and everything else) off the reindeer. And long before Santa and his team had in fact reached anything like 6200 mps, atmospheric friction would have vaporized them.

Virginia put down her pencil and cried into her hands. That nice newspaper editor probably didn’t know much math–you know how journalists are–but she did, and she just couldn’t believe anymore.

Can anyone help Virginia by showing her an error in her assumptions or calculations? Or is Santa doomed?

(This is not a trick question. I’d really like to know!)

0 Responses to “How Physics Killed Santa Claus”

  1. Lisa

    I’m reminded of “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street,” in which Oscar the Grouch poses the question of how big, fat Santa can fit into all of those little tiny chimneys and Big Bird nearly freezes to death in his quest to find out. Silly Big Bird, and silly Virginia: clearly Santa has help.

  2. Randy

    Santa moves even faster than that, nearly at the speed of light. Thus, time essentially slows down for him. It doesn’t feel like it to Santa, of course. But while he is taking many days to do his work, only 30 hours passes for us in our frame of reference.

  3. John Stackhouse

    Virginia doesn’t know much about relativity theory, but she’s pretty sure that as objects approach the speed of light, they become incredibly massive. Thus she doubts that Santa, who is already pretty large, can possibly get that big and still get around.

    She’s also pretty sure that attaining such speeds won’t solve the problems she encountered of acceleration and friction.

    Invoking the speed of light, therefore, seems no different from saying, “It’s magic!”

  4. Bennett

    Quantum Mechanics… DUH!

    Santa, like the rest of us, exists in about 11 dimensions (give or take). The “magic” of Santa is that he has found the secret to manipulate movement in at least one of the extra dimensions that us regular folks haven’t been able to harness (yet). My theory is that Santa has found a way to harmonize the vibrations of the particles that form Santa in such a way that they can seem to appear at two or more locations at the same time.

    It will make perfect sense after reading this Wikipedia article.

  5. John Stackhouse

    I think Beth’s answer and Bennett’s answer amount to the same thing, at least as a layperson who has tried to follow string theory for a number of years. It continues to be a theory in turmoil, so Bennett’s confidence that a Wikipedia article will help us “make perfect sense” of it seems, um, unlikely to me!

    (Bennett, of course, might be making a wry joke here precisely because he, too, knows how contested various string theories are today. If so, good one, dude!)

    Let’s also be clear that Santa’s particles must not only appear in different places at the same time, but must perform different actions at the same time. I’m not sure how string theory helps us here.

    So Beth’s theory so far is the best one yet…

  6. Daniel Azuma

    Poor Santa has got more than the assembled armies of physics arrayed against him. If some predictions regarding global warming are to be believed, the value of North Pole real estate may be taking a serious, uhh, dive, in not too many decades.

  7. Jeremy

    Professor Stackhouse – you have presented a classic example of a Fermi estimate here. We love science in our post enlightenment, post industrial revelation world. Science has given us all sorts of great labour saving technology and because of that we favour scientific truth as absolute or at least the truest truth. I wonder if Virginia’s grief parallels that experienced by advocates of all pre-modern mythology. I also wonder about science’s place in the world of mythology. Santa Claus isn’t true in the scientific sense (don’t tell the kids) but I wonder if there truth in the Santa myth in the Tolkien’s true myth sense?

  8. John Stackhouse

    As a University of Chicago graduate who used to walk by Enrico Fermi’s former laboratory on my way to the library built near where he supervised the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, I am thrilled to find that I have performed something called a Fermi estimate!

    Yet I don’t think the question here can be a global one of “pre-modern versus modern.” I happen to believe in some pre-modern ideas–such as the incarnation of God in Jesus, and in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead–that some think are incredible in the light of modern learning. So I don’t share Virginia’s grief on this score.

    As for the myth of Santa Claus being a “good dream” as per Tolkien (C. S. Lewis gives us the idea of “true myth,” I think–no?–and applies it to the story of Jesus), yes, I think it is partly and importantly true, however secularized and sentimentalized the story of St. Nicholas truly has become.

  9. Stephen Dawe

    Virginia might want to check cultural differences (she seems patently occidental in perspective). If I remember correctly, Santa delivers gifts in Hungary and Poland on December 6th (the feast of St. Nicholas) and in much of Russia, presents are delivered by Babushka, not Santa. So we are looking at essentially a team Santa over several days during the year.

  10. Jeremy

    I hold some of those same pre-modern ideas. Would we grieve if we held those ideas up to the same scientific scrutiny that Virginia has applied to Santa? I am not suggesting that we check our brains at the door but only trying to point out the limitations of the scientific method in matters that are supernatural. Watch the naturalists have fun dismantling incarnation ideas like the virgin birth and the wise man’s star or resurrection ideas like getting through locked doors and elevating in clouds (not to mention not being dead anymore).

    Maybe in arguing with the scientists we reveal that we are just as into scientism as they are?

    My argument does hinge on the fact that the Santa story and the Jesus story have something in common. (don’t they share the same birthday? *grin*) I felt the connection (in the familiar manner of the dismantling of myth )maybe more than thought it when I read your post.

  11. John Stackhouse

    Stephen speaks of “Team Santa,” having scolded an American schoolgirl for being “patently occidental”!

    But Virginia’s math holds up, even under this multiculturalist chiding. Suppose we have 20 members of Team Santa working on 10 different nights. That brings the speed of 6200 mps down to a relatively sedate 31 mps. But that’s still easily enough to blast or roast all 20 Santas, I daresay.

    Alas, even Edward Said cannot avail here (let the reader understand).

    As for Jeremy, he’s right, in fact, to sniff out something else going on here. I am indeed having a little fun with those hyper-scientific skeptics who, since the Enlightenment, have thought they could easily disprove Christian doctrine.

    I don’t think Christian doctrine is nearly so susceptible to truly scientific debunking. But it’s interesting to consider how we would “save Santa” from it, and that’s partly what this little thought experiment is about. Are the strategies being used in the “Comments” here similar to strategies used to defend Christian doctrine over the centuries of modernity?

    I’m waiting for someone to make a post-Kantian move and talk about “Santa in our hearts,” etc. Any takers?

  12. Mark

    Thank you, Professor Stackhouse, for finally carrying the conversation to the enlightened realm of post-Kantianism. Indeed we should speak of the “Santa in our hearts”. It follows that we must allow for a great diversity of hearts, and thus a great diversity of Santas, no individual Santa being privileged over another. I am not echoing Stephen’s Team Santa approach, for this would imply a single system in which each culture’s version of Santa falls neatly into a cooperative effort that a feeble human mind, with enough time and resources, could wrap itself around. Rather, I am attempting to remind us all that we are terribly limited beings, and that we cannot hope to break Santa down into a logical, scientific system.

    In the cultural language I feel most at home with, Santa is able to manipulate the laws of time in order to deliver gifts at his leisure out of a De Lorean DMC-12. However, others I know view Santa within a Hogwartian paradigm in which he travels from fireplace to fireplace through the use of floo powder. The whole assumption that Santa’s business need be done out of a sled pulled by flying reindeer is actually a bit insulting in this age of cultural awareness. The sled and reindeer type are not necessarily incorrect, but neither am I with my omnipresent Santa, nor my friend with her wizarding Santa.

    What we really need to determine is whether we can detect a universal impact on human hearts of the idea of . . . well, I’m struggling now to come up with a name for this thing we refer to so comfortably as “Santa”. Perhaps out of sensitivity we should call him, er, it, the Giver . . . although this would imply that this being must always give at Christmas. Hmm, there’s another conversation in itself; how shall we name this being? Is it even appropriate to bring this topic up at this particular time of year, when there are so many other times of year to be considered? What are we talking about again?

  13. Andrew Lunau Smith

    Great allegory!

    Sorry to drag this back to rationalism… there is a shadowy little thing called “Santa’s List” that hasn’t yet been factored in. Santa limits the gifts. You know, naughty or nice, and all that. How can that poor emerging child ever know she is part of the elf’s elect? If you reform the anecdote, perhaps the number of recipients is far smaller than we give Santa credit for. I heard it was 144,000 and they mostly lived in the same geographic location. Or maybe not. You know how rumors start.

    NOT likely on Santa’s List,

  14. Yvette

    It’s so much easier than all of that. Stephen and Mark were close with varying theories of Santa. Did you see “Multiplicity”? Santa cloned himself. The clones closer to the original Santa deliver presents made by the elves. The presents delivered by a copy of a copy of a copy from Santa deliver presents from K-Mart and Big Lots and originate from the Island of Misfit Toys. I hope this clears up all the confusion.

  15. John Stackhouse

    Thanks to Preston for making himself clear.

    Thanks to Mark for making himself unclear.

    Thanks to ALS for trying to convert us all to the Watchtower Society. Or was it Calvinism?

    And thanks to Yvette for explaining some of the crummy presents some of us have received, even if it’s not quite clear how many clones she has in mind to handle the numbers Virginia originally came up with…

    Yer a funny bunch!

  16. Joshua

    She is wrong in assuming that Santa visits everyone that celebrates in some form or fashion Christmas. He doesn’t! He only visits those people that already believe in him. Since the relative age that people are mistakenly told that Santa in fact does not exist can be rounded to age 10, and assuming that Santa respects the wishes of parents who think they know everything including his non-existence, then this allows the rounded number of 2 billion to be drastically decreased. Even if we were to round the number of complete family units that believe in Santa to 1 million (being totally optimistic of course), this would significantly help the math work itself out. I am confident that with this revelation that Virginia can crunch the new numbers, and find that Santa can indeed perform his yearly duties.

  17. Yvette

    For the math…there are 111,166 clones, plus Santa and his partner, Bono. Each Santa averages three minutes per visit. Some are shorter because of the naughty list, and some are longer because they have to stop for milk and cookies (tamales for those stopping in Hispanic homes). This means each clone Santa stops at about 20 homes per hour and 600 homes for the 30 hour period (667m/600). Bono sings them songs through their satellite radio system so they can stay motivated in their deliveries. The Edge gets all of the extra cookies. Red Bull is now sponsoring the sleighs so the Santa clones stay awake for the whole time. You can see their logo on the sleigh if you look real close.

  18. Rob

    As a longtime Whovian, I’ve always just figured Santa’s a Gallifreyan, and his sleigh is a TARDIS. (I suspect his job to be a punishment from the Time Lords.)

  19. Micah

    We are using our model of the world, to prove or disprove Santa, attempting to use our paradigm of science and philosophy to ‘save the appearances’.

    In Christ, and in Santa Claus, there are phenomena that we cannot explain within the boundaries of the modern model of the world.

    Once we shift our Model about how the universe works, our science will find the phenomena to prove the Model. The shift to the modern Model, with evolution, laws of physics, relativity and their friends, happened before the phenomena appeared. An understanding of the world happened, people shifted their thinking about how the world ‘works’, and then Einstein went to work. Not the other way around. The phenomena do not and never have, changed our model of thinking. [Lewis, “The Discarded Image”]

    Regardless of what you know about physics, the phenomena of gifts delivered by Santa exists; therefore, what we know about physics must not be the whole story.

    There is a current malaise with the modern model, and string theory and quantum mechanics are the science beginning to find phenomena to prove what we already believe to be true; we believe it, we just don’t know the math yet, so to speak. See science fiction: aliens, telepathy, telekinesis, etc. Are some of the myths actualities? That we are already experiencing? Quite possibly.

    What in fact happens, among all people with religious faith or not – whatever its stripe, is belief before phenomena. Virginia’s problem then, is that she stopped believing in Santa before she began her proof.

    “But logically”, says Virginia, “its impossible.”

    What do they teach in schools these days? Well, it certainly, unfortunately, isn’t logic [I don’t have nearly enough, which is why this argument is likely flawed, in fact, for reading this much, I should buy you a drink.]

    What do we know about Santa, Virginia? Santa gives gifts to people on Christmas. And do people get gifts at Christmas? Yes. So, Santa exists then right? The implied premise is that Santa is responsible for the gifts.

  20. John Stackhouse

    Joshua tries to solve the problem by lightening Santa’s load, but I don’t think the physics works out yet. Even if you drop the number of visits by a factor of 100, Santa and the reindeer still burn up in the atmosphere.

    Yvette thinks that 20 homes per hour is not too much, which it isn’t, as long as the little logistical problem of producing, training, and equipping 100K+ clones is dealt with. (That’s 800 thousand flying reindeer you’ve gotta come up with, for one thing.) As far as I can see, that’s still tantamount to saying, “It’s magic!”

    Micah gets all epistemological on us, and that’s cool. But I can’t decide whether he’s saying there are phenomena for which we do not yet have explanations, but nonetheless irrefutably exist, so too bad for our current explanations (what Thomas Kuhn would call “anomalies” that should trigger a paradigm shift) OR he’s saying that we aren’t seeing the anomalies because we haven’t changed our theories yet–but why would we change theories without observations that prompt reconsideration of established models (Kuhn’s anomalies again)? I look forward to Micah taking another run at this, once he’s got that sorted out.

    Meanwhile, I’m continuing to confirm my status on Santa’s “Naughty” list by fending off attempts to save him. But I’m sure he respects me for it…?

  21. Yvette

    We don’t need quite that many reindeer. In the Ukraine his sleigh is pulled by only three reindeer. In Australia it is pulled by eight white kangaroos. At least that’s what I read on the internet, so it has to be true ( 🙂

    If Santa gets a little creative, he can have his sleigh pulled by Chihuahuas in Mexico and Longhorns in Texas. Hook ’em Horns!

  22. Mike

    The answer is simple. She hasn’t taken into accounts the parents who mistakenly don’t believe in Santa. Santa has no need to visit those house-holds as the parents have already done his work for him.

    This drastically decreases the number of households he needs to visit to the extent that he actually does manage to visit all the true-believing households.

  23. the Awesome Penguin

    Well, Wouldn’t Santa have 2000 years to build up his clone army? the population is slowly increasing right?
    So Santa only has to train around 5 Santas per year to deal with the increasing workload.
    Also, Santa would’ve modernized a long time ago.
    Reindeer Robots with rockets power the sleighs…


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