Saturday, December 20, 2008

Santa Claus, a scientific inquiry

Santa Claus, a scientific inquiry

From SPY Magazine, first published in the January/February 1991 issue...

Do you believe in Santa Claus?

This is a complex theological question that each child must decide for him- or herself. Until now, that is. With the aid of a calculator, SPY JR. has conducted a rigorous statistical investigation into the question of Santa's existence. Be forewarned: you may not like our conclusions...

We begin our investigation by assuming that Santa Claus really does exist. Now, if you've learned anything about human nature, you know that it's highly unlikely that a normal man would choose, for no particular reason, to devote his life to making toys and delivering them to boys and girls the world over. But this is an objective inquiry, and questions of motivation aren't relevant. We want only to know whether such a man could accomplish his mission.

Santa's first obstacle is that no known species of reindeer can fly. However, scientists estimate that out of the earth's roughly 2 million species or living organisms, 300,000 or so have yet to be classified. So, even though most of these undiscovered species are insects and germs, we can't rule out the slight possibility that a species of flying reindeer does, in fact, exist. And that no one besides Santa has ever seen one.

A bigger obstacle for Santa is that there are 2 billion children under the age of 18 in the world. The good news is that he needs to deliver presents only to the Christian children, of whom there are approximately 378 million. Let's assume that 15 percent of these Christian children have been bad and are thus -- like Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim children -- ineligible for gift getting. Still at an average rate of 3.5 children per household, Santa has a backbreaking 91.8 million homes to visit on any given Christmas Eve.

Fortunately, Santa has 31 hours of Christmas Eve darkness to visit all these homes if he travels from east to west, thanks to the rotation of the earth. Unfortunately, this still works out to 822.6 visits per second. So, for each Christian household with good children, Santa has just over a thousandth of a second to land, hop out of his sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the rest of the presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left out, get back up the chimney, climb back into his sleigh, take off and fly to the next house.

How fast is Santa moving? Assuming all 91.8 million stops are spread evenly over the earth's landmass, Santa must travel 0.79 miles per household -- a total trip of 72,522,000 miles. (This is a conservative estimate. It doesn't include trips across oceans, feeding stops for the reindeer, etc.) Given the 31-hour time period, Santa's sleigh must maintain an average speed of 650 miles per second, or more than 3,000 times the speed of sound. To give you an idea how fast that is, the fastest man-made vehicle ever built, the Ulysses space probe, travels at a relatively poky pace of 27.4 miles per second, and conventional, land-bound reindeer travel at a top speed of 15 miles per hour. But let's assume that Santa's flying reindeer are somehow able to reach hypersonic speeds -- thanks, say, to the magical spirit of Christmas giving.

Let's take a closer look at Santa's vehicle. First of all, assuming a cheapo 2 pounds of presents per child (that's like one crummy Lego set), the sleigh must still be able to carry a load or 321,300 tons -- plus Santa, an overweight man. On land, a reindeer can't pull more that 300 pounds of freight, and even assuming that flying reindeer could pull ten times that amount, Santa's massive sleigh has to be drawn by 214,200 beasts. They increase the weight of the overall Santa payload to 353,430 tons (not including the weight of the sleigh itself). This is more than four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. Imagine: Santa skimming over rooftops in a gargantuan hypersonic aircraft with even less maneuverability than a Big Wheel.

Here's where things get fun.

Three hundred fifty-three thousand tons of reindeer and presents are going to create an enormous amount of air resistance -- especially at 650 miles per second. This air resistance will heat up the reindeer in the same way that spaceships are heated up when they reenter the earth's atmosphere. According to our calculations, the lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy per second each. This means that they will burst into spectacular, multi-colored flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them. As Santa continues on his mission -- leaving deafening sonic booms in his wake -- charred reindeer will constantly be sloughed off. All 214,200 reindeer will be dead within 4.26 thousandths of a second.

As for Santa, he will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa will be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,375,015 pounds of force (after we deduct his weight). This force will kill Santa instantly, crushing his bones, pulverizing his flesh, turning him into pink goo.

In other words, if Santa tries to deliver presents on Christmas Eve to every qualified boy and girl on the face of the earth, he will be liquefied.

Our conclusion: if Santa Claus does exist, he's dead.

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