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The Physics of Santa Clause

  1. Jan 9, 2005 #1
    My physics teacher gave everyone in his class this handout just before we broke for Christmas break. I know this is a little late in coming, but I thought you all might find it interesting.

    1. Flying Reindeer
    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.​

    2. Children
    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.​

    3. Timing
    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.​

    4. Weight
    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 anoint, 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.​

    5. Speed
    353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance -- this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecrafts 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.​

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

    This inquiry is based on the premise that there is only one Santa Claus. The calculations work out more realistically if you assume some form of parallel processing. A thousand Santa‚Äôs (1 kilosanta) or a million (a megasanta) or more, working parallel, could perform the same number of visits in the same allotted time with less advanced technology (and fewer vaporized reindeer).​

    One Other Point
    Who does the air traffic control for a megasanta? A million sleighs and 12 million reindeer occupy a significant amount of airspace. If we assume that each reindeer team, sleigh and Santa needs no more than 5 feet of vertical airspace (which, given that known species of reindeer with antlers are quite nearly 5 feet tall, leaves very little room for error), then a megasanta requires almost 947 miles of vertical airspace. This also disregards the fact that each Santa must make frequent landings. The airspace at chimney level will be in high demand and disproportionately crowded, particularly as Christmas-celebrating households tend to be densely clustered in the same geographic areas. It seems likely that a megasanta, while perhaps avoiding vaporized reindeer, would suffer huge casualties from in-air collisions.​
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 9, 2005 #2
    Any thoughts on Mrs. Clause ?
  4. Jan 10, 2005 #3
    How many elves would be necessary to produce all the presents?
  5. Jan 10, 2005 #4


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    See the physics of Santa Claus and many humourous rebuttals here:

    http://home.uchicago.edu/~rascalzo/arch/palace/library/humor-tech/santa-physics.html [Broken]

    I liked this one, especially the last sentence:

    Rebuttal 4
    Jerome Elisha

    Surely the 'esteemed' professional making the analysis means 'forces of acceleration', and not "centrifugal forces" as stated. Furthermore, to accept the ability of reindeer to defy the law of gravity and then bind them to the remaining laws of physics is an error in argument.

    The assertion ignores empirical data - Santa does exist: one can see him often during the months leading up to the Big Day. Indeed, it is a frequent occurrence to see him on multiple street corners, or in front of several businesses, at the same time. Either A) Santa has many helpers, or B) Santa is capable of numerous manifestations. In either case, the acceleration arguments above are not valid, since the multiplicity of Santas (manifestations or helpers) could easily handle smaller portions of the task with time left over for cookies and milk.

    Arguments A) and B) are both are supported by the different guises he sports in various countries (Santa Claus, Sinter Klaus, Kris Kringle, et al.), and by his acknowledged ability to "see you when you're sleeping; he knows when you're awake". The decision between A) or B) is left as a proof for the student.
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