Physics of Santa
By dcb on Dec 21, 2004
You might have seen this in years past. If not, here is the analysis from Spy mag in January 1990, as well as a rebuttal.
1. No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.
2. There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn't (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total -- 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census)rate of 3.5 children per household, that's 91.8 million homes. One presumes there's at least one good child in each.
3. Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west(which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75-1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc. This means that Santa's sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second -- a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.
4. The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that "flying reindeer" (see point #1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal anoint, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload - not even counting the weight of the sleigh -- to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison -- this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.
5. 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance -- this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecrafts re-entering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim)would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.
In conclusion -- If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he's dead now.
If you're going to criticise Santa Claus on physical grounds, you may at least do it right.
The payload calculations are nonsense. Adding, say, 1000 stops back at the North Pole for reloading adds only a few percent to the entire distance covered, while reducing the payload by a factor of 1000. This is clearly the way to go.
The nonuniform distribution of children has a tremendous effect on the routing. With sensible routing, the average distance from a good child to the next good child is only a couple hundred feet in suburban conditions (this is clearly higher in the country, but is much less in, say, New York City). With only .05 miles between average good children, Santa need only travel at Mach 200, just a little faster than Ulysses. This reduces the force of air resistance by a factor of 200, and the power absorbed by the reindeer by 3000.
Of course, if Santa stops to give coal to bad children it could slow things down a bit. But it appears that increasing population has made Santa give up that trick. When was the last time you heard of anybody getting a lump of coal?
We all saw the pictures of a smart bomb falling through an Iraqi smokestack. Clearly Santa uses the same technology for toys and chimneys. By dropping, say, 100 toys at a time from high altitude, Santa can reduce his speed by another factor of 10. While still supersonic, this is now slightly less than orbital velocity, sparing Santa and his team the trauma of extreme centrifugal force.
Santa's trip IS a remarkable feat of aeronautics, but please don't say it's impossible.