The Physics of Santa

by | Dec 20, 2007 | Personal Notes, Weekly Column

cookies-and-milk.jpgAs a kid, I always wondered why Santa Claus never ate the cookies and milk we left for him. A few years ago, a physics teacher friend explained why. Here is a repeat of the column I wrote based on his information.

Tradition tells us Santa visits every child around the world on Christmas Eve. Now, understand that Santa’s Christmas Eve is 36 hours long. That’s 7 pm to 7 am, plus time to travel around the globe as the Earth spins on its axis. This adds up to about 129,600 seconds. So if one-fourth of the roughly six billion people on this planet are children, Santa could spend less than 9/100,000 of a second, on average, at each one’s house. This is not enough time to eat cookies or drink milk.

In order to visit the more than one billion houses in the world during his long night’s work, Santa would have to travel at a rate of about 13,000 times the speed of sound. Can you imagine the frictional heat that would be caused by a plump gentleman and a team of reindeer moving that fast? It would burn Santa, his sleigh, all the reindeer, and the Christmas presents into cinders in something less than a millionth of a second.

Also, a Santa-sized object moving through the air that fast would in all likelihood dislodge electrons from the air molecules. As a result, a giant bolt of lightening would follow the sleigh. Since lightning travels much faster than 13,000 times the speed of sound, one could surmise that Santa would be zapped from behind by the biggest lightning strike of all time.

Further, if Santa’s sleigh were loaded with one medium-sized toy for every child, it would weigh about the samesanta-and-sleigh.jpg as a herd of ten million buffalo. The force needed to accelerate the sleigh to cruising speed would be something like 500,000,000 space shuttles blasting off at the same time. It would take the combined energy of ten thousand simultaneously exploding nuclear weapons to get the sleigh airborne—and then the same amount of energy to get it stopped next to the chimney of the next house. This would continue for each of the billion-plus houses on his trip.

Another little problem would be the sonic boom. In the same way that water forms a wake behind a speeding boat, air pressure waves would spread from the sleigh. This would create the loudest sonic boom ever heard, and no place on earth would be spared from the blast!

In addition to minor consequences like breaking every window in the world as well as the eardrums of almost everyone who forgot to wear ultra-heavy-duty ear protection that evening, the boom would result in the frantic stampeding of all domestic and wild animals. Can you imagine a great herd of panic-stricken cats thundering in a desperate stampede down Main Street? The mind boggles at the thought.

Thank goodness that the real Santa is not limited by the laws of physics. Oh, yes, as I tell my children, there is merry-christmas.jpgindeed a real Santa. I explain that he’s not the one they see dressed in red and white, sitting in a department store promising every kid the latest toys. The Santa Claus that really exists is the Spirit of Peace, a symbol of the sharing and caring that makes Christmas a blessed season every year.

And so, to everyone, my wish is that you will experience the richness of this Christmas season with those you love, as I have the great good fortune to be doing. Merry Christmas to you all.

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