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The Science of Santa Claus

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
It's Christmas Eve, and Santa Claus is exceptionally busy. He's got presents to deliver to children all over the world, and only a single night to do it in - using only a single sleigh and some reindeer. And yet, Santa manages the impossible every single year! So, how does Saint Nick do it? What does science say about the Christmas tradition?
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The Science of Santa Claus


The magic of Christmas isn’t going anywhere. Movies, music, tons of chocolate, awesome presents – it definitely is the season to be jolly. But while lots of us are busy stuffing turkeys, or buying Christmas jumpers for awkward office parties… scientists, mathematicians, physicists and theorists are all engaged in that oh-so-serious yearly debate; Just how feasible is Santa Claus – scientifically speaking? If he does exist (and we all know he does), then what kind of festive figures is he posting? Let’s unravel the science of Santa… And, here’s hoping you asked for a calculator this year!

First off, how does the big guy get around so quickly? Obviously, the answer’s ‘magic’. But, what if he had only regular reindeer at his disposal? Assuming that flying reindeer have the same top speed as your standard, land-based version, Santa’s sleigh-pullers are hitting 50mph per hour, on a good day… But, for them to visit every house in the world in just one night, they need to be travelling at around 900 miles per second – give or take. How have we reached that figure? Well, there’s roughly 2 billion children in the world, and – while estimates do vary – around 400 million of those celebrate Christmas. With an average of 3 children in every household, that’s upwards of 130 million homes on Santa’s annual route. Still with us?

Taking the average distance between every Christmas-celebrating house into account, the legendary gift-giver has to cover 100 million miles in what we can only assume is an exceptionally busy evening. But, wait! Thanks to global time zones, he does have a little longer than just your typical twelve hours of night-time to work with. Continually moving west until he reaches the International Date Line at dawn, the bearded wonder actually has about 31 hours to complete his trip. 100 million miles in 31 hours equals 900 miles per second. It’s pretty simple, really…

But, back to the reindeer… their top speed isn’t quite what’s required. It’s actually more like 0.01 miles per second. All of which means it’d take roughly 2 million hours (that’s 83,000 days, or 228 years) for Santa’s sleigh to circumnavigate the globe. By which time, you’re probably not that interested in whatever toy you’d ask for all those years ago…

Obviously though Santa manages it every year, because his magical reindeer are clearly incredibly quick. But, the astonishing speeds shouldn’t detract from Saint Nick’s monumental effort in general, come Christmas night. All in, he makes 1,200 visits a second… That’s 70,000 with every passing minute. Given he has to climb down the chimney, fill up stockings, and swig milk, sherry or whatever else has been left out at every single stop, this guy does not hang about.

In terms of milk and cookies, reliable estimates vary wildly – and no one’s yet managed to ask the man himself… But, say Santa’s snacking on three per household, that’s a whopping 390 million altogether. And, he’s washing it all down with roughly 5 million gallons of milk – all while travelling at the magic 900 miles per second. It’s a wonder he doesn’t spend the entire journey with his head in a sick bucket! The big guy’s still only reaching about 0.5% the speed of light, though. If anything proves just how impossibly fast lightspeed really is, then it’s this!

Forget how fast it’s travelling, though. The sleigh itself is the ultimate vehicle. 400 million kids means 400 million toys, at least. Taking the Furby – one of the most popular kids’ Christmas gifts in the ‘90s – as a typical toy in terms of size, shape and weight, the yearly load weighs about 550 million lbs – which is over a quarter of a million tons. Add to that the weight of the actual sleigh, and of its exceptionally well-fed pilot, and you really start to feel for Donner, Dasher, Blitzen and the rest.

But, before the sleigh is loaded, the toys have to be made. And the numbers behind Santa’s workforce also spectacularly snowball – especially if you have had a mulled wine, or two. Say it takes every elf one day to make one toy, and they work every day except Christmas? To generate enough toys for everyone, Santa needs just over 1 million elves – that’s close to the population of Manhattan.

If ‘the nice list’ is especially full, and the average is upped to 10 toys per kid, the task gets even trickier. Say our million-strong staff of enthusiastic elves actually work a standard working week, that’s over 2 billion hours total to make over 4 billion toys. So, it’s half-hour per toy – not including overtime or the very probable possibility that they’re all working weekends.

As for where this workforce lives, it’s anyone’s guess – but it’s massive. With conservative estimates claiming that Santa’s North Pole facility is around 25,000 square miles – including a working factory and enough living space. Perhaps tellingly, people do live in the Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, Siberia and Scandinavia, but nobody actually lives in the North Pole itself. Scientifically-speaking, that’s because A) it’s made of highly unstable sea ice, and B) because temperatures regularly drop to minus-40 degrees. But, could it be that no one goes there because Saint Nick has a magical monopoly on the winter wonderland? You decide!

What’s the science of Santa Claus? Honestly, it’s all over the place. But, as we all know, Santa’s magic probably doesn’t give two ho ho hoots about our poxy science anyway. Regardless of whatever ultra-advanced technology he’s obviously employing, as long as there are presents to deliver and cookies to devour, he’ll be there. Who are we to argue with his methods?
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