Santa physics: Everyone knows Santa Claus since he’s been popular for more than 100 years but in recent years there have been a few critics about the jovial fellow’s abilities to deliver so many presents for Christmas Day around the world. Here, we explain ‘Santa physics’.
One of the most famous articles about his abilities was published in Spy magazine in January 1990. That’s when the article writer Richard Waller detailed his scepticism of Santa’s ability to deliver so many presents to so many children.
And, after it first appeared, it went viral around the world which prompted others to offer explanations for Santa’s incredible physics.
Waller had worked out that Santa, who delivers from the east, could utilise time zones and the Earth’s rotation to help make his night last for up to 31 hours. Since Santa needs to deliver to 92 million homes (that’s the number of Christian children divided by an average of children in a household) means, according to Waller’s calculations, that Santa has to travel 75.5 million miles to get the delivery job done.
Waller also added that the distance Santa travels which when divided by his time spent travelling means Santa’s sleigh will have to travel at 650 miles per second to complete his incredible delivery run. That means the sleigh will be up to 3,000 times faster than the speed of sound!
Who is Rudolph?
He’s nearly as popular as Santa and that is the ever-present sidekick Rudolph with his glowing red nose.
However, unlike Santa, Rudolph’s story can be traced to the writer Robert L May. In 1939, he worked as a copywriter for the department stores Montgomery Ward which had been giving away colouring books during the festive period and they wanted to do something different. They asked May to conjure up a story and May came up with the idea of a misfit reindeer who, on a foggy Christmas Eve, manages to save the day for Santa.
The story became incredibly popular but because May didn’t own the copyright to it, the department store benefitted from his imagination.
Though a few years later the store handed May the rights because he was in serious debt due to costs incurred with his wife’s terminal illness. After this, in 1949, a hit song was composed by Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law, which also became popular and May enjoyed royalties. As he did when a famous Christmas TV special in 1964 delivered financial security – and Rudolph’s place in popular Christian culture was made permanent.
Santa physics – his sleigh must weigh 321,300 tons
In his article, Waller calculated that for each child to receive a present that weighed two pounds or just less than a kilo, then Santa’s sleigh would weigh-in at 321,300 tons. Waller then increases that to 353,430 tons to take into account the 214,200 reindeer he believes would be necessary for pulling such a heavy sleigh.
This means that Santa’s sleigh will weigh about four times the famous cruise liner, Queen Elizabeth.
His article ended by noting that if Santa’s sleigh and reindeer attempt to move through the Earth’s atmosphere at 650 miles per second, they would be exposed to enormous air resistance. This is the same issue that can be seen when a spacecraft has its hull heat up when re-entering our atmosphere – but Santa’s sleigh would explode into a ball of flames.
Waller finished his calculations by noting that Santa, having dealt with such acceleration forces in flight, would probably not survive.
High-Tech Saint Nick
Since publication, there have been lots of rebuttals with some many pointing out Waller’s calculation flaws.
For instance, critics say the payload issue could be dealt with by Santa making lots of return trips to the North Pole. Though this move increases the delivery length by a small amount it also manages to effectively reduce substantially the sleigh’s weight.
Other writers highlight that not every country will celebrate Christmas on the same day. Orthodox churches, for example, celebrate Christmas several days later so Santa will get two shots at making his vast delivery schedule.
One writer has also worked out that Waller’s calculation for the number of stops required by Santa is incorrect. He stated that Waller’s calculation has not taken into account those homes where there are no children.
Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas
Roger Highfield, author of ‘Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas’, suggests that Waller has taken into account that Santa could have a high tech solution up his sleeve. For example, ‘inertial dampers’ – a device that is used in the Star Trek films to help keep crew members from getting squashed as the Enterprise heads to Warp 8 – could potentially be used by Santa to resolve the high-acceleration issue. While this tech is not currently known to our science – it might be known to Santa.
Others have offered the idea that Santa might be able to manipulate time by creating an artificial time bubble around him and his sleigh. If so, they suggest, he could speed himself up as much as he needed to.
However, when it comes to Santa physics, he does achieve an incredible delivery schedule to delights millions of children on Christmas morning every year – as he has done for more than a century. Perhaps it is just magic.