The physics behind Santa Claus

The physics behind Santa Claus

NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe speaks with Norwegian scientist Gaute Einevoll about the physics behind Santa Claus.



AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Finish decorating your tree, hang up those stockings and grab some cookies. Christmas Eve is fast approaching and Santa Claus is hard at work preparing for his big night.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN”)

JACKSON 5: (Singing) Santa Claus is coming to town. Santa Claus is coming to town.

RASCOE: Now a lot of people may wonder how does Santa Claus deliver presents to around 2 billion children in one night? Well, here’s an answer for you – physics. Gaute Einevoll is a physicist at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He wrote about the physics of Santa’s Big Night and now joins us from Oslo. Welcome.

GAUTE EINEVOLL: Thank you. Thank you.

RASCOE: OK, let’s start with the biggest questions that people are concerned about. How does Santa Claus, one person, move fast enough to deliver all these gifts to all these children? I mean, because there are only 24 hours in a day.

EINEVOLL: Yes, that’s true. But fortunately, all good children live all over the world. So there are different time zones. So it’s actually a little over 24 hours, maybe more like 30 hours. Another thing that helps is that I think in the United States usually Santa comes by in the middle of the night. In Europe, at least in Norway, it comes in the evening.

RASCOE: What about speed? Does it have to go really, really fast?

EINEVOLL: Yeah, it has to go very, very fast. But I mean, we’re used to living in three dimensions, aren’t we? Left, right, straight and up and down. Modern physics, in particular what is called string theory, has shown that there can be more than three dimensions. Things that are far away, for example, in three dimensions can be very close in four dimensions. What if you were living on a sheet of paper and you felt, like, two points far apart on that sheet of paper when it’s lying straight, when you bend the paper, those two points can be very close, right? not ? If you’re just able to jump through the paper – a much, much shorter distance.

RASCOE: So what about the weight of all those gifts?

EINEVOLL: I think he’s using space, isn’t he? We just – like, we have the International Space Station in orbit. We think he also makes a lot of gifts in space, using materials from, for example, asteroids and the like, like comets, etc. So like, we will be too – humans plan to do maybe in the future. So we think he also has a lot of gifts stored there, which are kind of refilled there over the course of the year. And when Christmas Eve comes around, then you can have all these little kinds of gifts, packages coming back to Earth.

RASCOE: Well, you know, my kids are very interested in how Santa knows if they’re naughty or nice. And I really want to be able to tell them because I tell them that he knows when they act.

EINEVOLL: No, it’s true. Again, this is where modern science comes in to help. Well, it seems that in a lot of those Christmas hats or stocking caps that kids use, Santa Claus has recording electrodes that record brain signals from kids’ heads. And then from there, he can sort of tell if he’s being mean or nice. It is a big problem to get all this information. This may also be an important role for Rudolph. And how does Santa Claus get all these signals from all these hats, from all these children? Well, they need strong antennae, and they shouldn’t be too far away. So I think we think Rudolph Woods and then, of course, Santa Claus may have to find out and analyze all the signals – probably have some very powerful computers up there.

RASCOE: Speaking of computers and things like that, there’s a lot of automated technology these days. Do you think Santa Claus could use all of this to make his job easier?

EINEVOLL: Absolutely. I think – in particular, I mentioned this thing about dropping presents from outer space. I think drones are probably helping Santa Claus because we’re kind of welcoming more and more people. We have more children and maybe more of them are nice too…

(TO LAUGH)

EINEVOLL: … So Santa Claus should use all available technology.

RASCOE: Before I let you go, I want to set the record straight. There is a controversy seeping in at the moment as to whether Santa Claus lives in Norway or Finland.

EINEVOLL: Yes. Yeah.

RASCOE: Like, what’s your take on that?

EINEVOLL: I thought it was settled a long time ago. Of course, he lives in Norway.

RASCOE: (Laughs).

EINEVOLL: Santa Claus spends a lot of time at the North Pole. He lives at the North Pole, doesn’t he? And it’s even in our name.

RASCOE: Yes, Norway.

EINEVOLL: Exactly.

RASCOE: (Laughs).

EINEVOLL: Our friends in Finland are a bit cheeky when they claim – (laughs) that he lives in northern Finland. As we know, there are also budding Santas. But the real Santa Claus, the one who really comes to children, he lives in Norway.

RASCOE: Gaute Einevoll is a Santa Claus expert and a physicist at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Thank you very much and Merry Christmas.

EINEVOLL: Merry Christmas to you too.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEAN DELORENZO “SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN (INSTRUMENTAL)”)

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