Friday, December 24, 2004

The Physics of Santa Claus

As NORAD redirects its vaunted scanning resources from preventing thermonuclear war to tracking Santa's progress across the skies (note to North Korea: it would be considered bad form to schedule a launch for this evening), I thought it would be fun to share this passage that's held an honored place in my Funnies Archive for a long time.

I first received it via fax (remember those?) around ten years ago. I believe it originally appeared in the January 1990 edition of SPY Magazine. The credited author is one Stanley I. Sandler, from the University of Delaware's Center for Molecular and Engineering Thermodynamics, Department of Chemical Engineering. (I would research its origins more deeply, only I'm on a dial-up connection and I don't want to monopolize the phone line, so I'm posting as quickly as I can. If you want to dig a bit deeper and then share your thoughts in a comment, go for it.)

Our esteemed professor - who clearly must have had little else to do when he penned this bit - opens with the following:

"As a result of an overwhelming lack of requests, and with research help from that renowned scientific journal SPY magazine (January, 1990) - I am pleased to present the annual scientific inquiry into Santa Claus."


No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn't (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total - 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that's 91.8 million homes. One presumes there's at least one good child in each.

Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75-1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc. This means that Santa's sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second - a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that "flying reindeer" (see point #1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload - not even counting the weight of the sleigh - to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison - this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.

353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance - this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion - If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he's dead now.


Carmi here: Quick note to wish everyone who celebrates Christmas - child or not - a happy, healthy, and safe holiday. May all your wishes come true on this day and beyond.


Kate said...

And to you.
May the coming year bring you more joy than the last.

Anonymous said...

Lazy(laughing!)Veda says:

Carmi, this is absolutely great! My face hurts, I'm laughing so hard!! (even brought the attention of others with my laughter!)

I hope that you have also been well, enjoyed the holidays and are happy. Thanks for the well wishes.

21 Wits said...

I still DO believe!