Santa – the Scientist?!

29 Dec

Article by Tiffany Taylor, posted on December 13, 2010 on Science Oxford Online (see original article here:

Christmas is here, and magic is in the air. On December the 24th children will be asleep in their beds hoping they’ve been good enough to have earned a visit from jolly old St. Nicholas – and this got me thinking about Santa Claus and his mystical existence. After much deliberating, I have come to a rather bizarre conclusion: Santa’s main occupation is not a magical delivery man, but a superb scientist. And his elves? They’re top notch research assistants, working away until Christmas day, to ensure every boy and girl around the world receive something special to make them smile. Of course, the sophisticated research and development programme behind Santa’s Christmas eve antics are top secret – but using a little scientific logic, I propose a few hypotheses of how Santa, and his faithful crew, might just do it.

The Science of the Sleigh

So let’s start by doing a little light maths. As of 2008, UNICEF calculated there were 2.2 billion children in the world under the age of 18. The average number of children per household across the world is 2.5, so that makes 880 million chimneys to visit. Over a land mass area of 58 million square miles, and assuming the houses are equidistant from each other, means Santa would have to travel about 229 million miles over the course of Christmas eve. That’s one major commute!

In order to reach every house in 24 hours Santa must visit over 36 million houses per hour (or 10,000 houses per second), at an average speed of 9.5 million miles per hour. But, in fact, Santa has 48 hours to deliver all the presents, because if you assume Santa will start delivering from the first country to pass through the international date line at midnight on December the 24th, he can then work against the rotation of the Earth, thus doubling his delivery time, and visiting 5,000 houses per second, at only 4.75 million miles per hour (ok, I haven’t taken into account the hours of darkness, but let’s not quibble) – piece of cake! Well, not quite, but it is not against the physical laws of relativity – Einstein showed the speed of light is absolute, and cannot be exceeded, but the speed of light is at around 186,000 miles per second, and Santa is travelling at a mere 1,319 miles per second, 141 times slower!

These, however, are not trivial speeds, and the technology required to allow Santa and his reindeer to withstand such large g-forces as would be experienced at 1,319 miles per second is something quite remarkable. The only way Santa could survive such force would be to create an artificial atmosphere around his sleigh which could respond to the accelerating force with some kind of reactionary anti-gravitational field. But there is another problem – Santa may be nowhere near the speed of light, but he would have to travel faster than the speed of sound (which is about 750 miles per hour). When an object exceeds the speed of sound there is a loud noise called “the sonic boom”. This happens because the travelling object catches up with the pressure waves it generates while moving, thus producing a shock wave, which is heard as a large bang. So why are we not continuously woken up on Christmas eve by Santa’s speedy sleigh? The technology we’re considering is already getting a little sci-fi, so why not propose teleportation?

Perhaps not quite as science fiction as one might think it was realised in 1998 when a group of physicists from the Californian Institute of Technology, along with two other groups from Europe, managed to successfully teleport a photon – a particle of energy that carries light – a few feet across a room, without crossing any physical distance in between. Since then in 2002, researchers from the Australian National University transported a laser beam, and most recently, in 2009 Christopher Monroe of the Joint Quantum Institute and his team, teleported matter in the form of a few sub atomic particles from one atom, to another. At the moment this is only possible for atomic and sub atomic particles because of their unusual physical properties which allows them to adopt an “entangled state”. Once two objects are entangled, their properties are inextricably linked and thus the state of one object instantly determines the state of the other, irrespective of physical distance. However, the teleportation of larger particles is theoretically not impossible, assuming one could recreate the atomic conditions of one place somewhere else, and entangle the atoms between the two locations together.

Our technologies are far from enabling Starship Enterprise-like travel, but then again, the elves might be intellectually superior to the human race, so if we can assume that Santa’s elves are much more technologically advanced in the field of quantum mechanics, perhaps Santa’s sleigh no longer needs to fly, and as the population of the world increased, technology met Santa’s growing demands, and he never had to let a child down at Christmas. This also conveniently overcomes the problem of chimneyless houses, and so I am happy to propose a modern day Santa has abandoned flight for a more modern approach of teleportation. So we may have a satisfactory hypothesis behind Santa’s travel technology, but what about those reindeer?

The Research behind Rudolph

My research into reindeer life-history revealed a shocking revelation regarding Rudolph’s true identity – he might, in fact, be a she. The history of Rudolph can be traced back to 1939, when a red nosed reindeer appeared in a book by Robert L. May, since then Rudolph has become a common part of Christmas folklore. However, though reindeer are the only deer species where both males and females possess antlers, the males lose theirs just after the mating season when they are no longer required for rutting, which means males do not bear antlers during the winter months. It is possible that due to the male dominated social politics of the time, Rudolph’s true identity was covered up, and she was masculinised. Another possible explanation for Rudolph’s antlers comes from traditional Sami practises. Sami’s (indigenous nomadic people of northern Scandinavia, many of whom still practise reindeer herding) castrate the male reindeer they use to pull or carry loads, in order to subdue aggressive tendencies during the breeding season. This alters the normal antler cycle and they tend to keep their antlers for longer than sexually functional males. So perhaps Santa, whose location has been suggested as Lapland in Northern Finland where Sami still live and herd their reindeer today, has adopted these practises.

The last mystery I want to tackle is that of Rudolph’s nose. In the dark dreary conditions of Christmas eve it is Rudolph’s responsibility to guide Santa’s sleigh safely through the night (or at least it was before the advancements of teleportation), but what makes his nose glow so bright? My guess is bioluminescence.
Bioluminescence describes the process where living animals are able to produce light by controlled chemical reactions. This impressive skill is used by many animals from marine to land, and microorganisms to vertebrates. For example, the Hawaiian Bobtail squid and the light producing bacteria Vibrio fischeri form a symbiotic relationship whereby each species helps the other out. The squid often falls prey to hunters at night, when they are most active. Squid feed near the surface of the water, and predators usually wait in the depths to look for shadows cast by the squid as they pass through the moonlit waters. In order to camouflage themselves, squid will house colonies of light producing bacteria on their underside which breaks up the shadow, and so, allows them to pass over the predator undetected. In return, the squid provides shelter and nutrients for the bacteria. So, could Rudolph have a similar symbiotic relationship with an arctic equivalent of Vibrio fischeri? The North Pole is dark for about six months of the year. A mutualism with a light producing microorganism would provide Rudolph with an evolutionary advantage, by allowing him to find food and other resources in the dark months. The bacteria would have to be extremophiles in order to survive the harsh conditions of the North Pole – extremophiles are organisms which are able to survive in extreme geological and physical conditions, such as in extraordinarily hot, acidic, or indeed, freezing conditions. By forming a mutualistic relationship with Rudolph, these bacteria would be exposed to far less extreme conditions, compared to the outside world. Overtime, both bacteria and Rudolph could evolve to be reliant on each-other for survival, and as such, a long term mutualism will evolve. If Santa realised its potential, he could perhaps even collect and culture the bacteria which live in Rudolph’s nose. This way he could artificially increase the intensity of light by inoculating Rudolph with an extra dose of bacteria when required – on Christmas eve.

Unfortunately we will never know how Santa does it. And perhaps, there is a little magic required for it to all come together, but if Clement Clark Moore knew what we did when he wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, it might have read a little more like this:

“It’s the eve before Christmas, and all though the night
Santa is travelling with entangled flight,
With millions of children asleep in their beds,
The teleport keeps him one step ahead.
And silently working hard through the night,
The reindeer still sore from their castrated plight,
And relying on bugs in Rudolph’s red nose,
They pull with their might, though their tiredness grows
And as hours go on, and day is in sight,
They drop the last present off for the night,
And back to the pole, with a “beam me up Scotty”,
Santa can rest, with a well-earned hot toddy.”

Merry Christmas everyone.

Many ideas and concepts from this article were taken from a wonderful book: “Can reindeer fly?”, by Roger Highfield

Additional Sources:
Olmschenk S., Matsukevich D.N., Maunz P., Hayes D., Duan L.M. & Monroe C. (2009). Quantum Teleportation Between Distant Matter Qubits. Science 323: 486-489.
Teleportation breakthrough made, Reported on BBC news by Paul Rincon, 2004
Photon teleportation achieved, Reported in the Cern Courier, 2000
Teleportation Milestone Achieved, Reported in LiveScience, 2009
Bubenik GA, Schams D, White RJ, Rowell J, Blake J, Bartos L (1997). Seasonal Levels of Reproductive Hormones and Their Relationship to the Antler Cycle of Male and Female Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part B: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 116: 269-277.
Why is Ruldolph’s nose red? By John Fuller, for TLC Family


Posted by on December 29, 2010 in Biology, Physics


Tags: , , , , , ,

4 responses to “Santa – the Scientist?!

  1. Rob

    January 11, 2012 at 11:19

    These have got to be the best science stories I’ve ever read Tiff! Absolutely brilliant!

    Can you chill out with the overachieving and give us mortals a chance?

    Hope all’s well in Reading!

    • Cell to Self

      January 16, 2012 at 10:29

      Thanks Rob! That’s really nice to hear. How is everything in Oxford? I miss it.


  2. Pingback: Cell to Self

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