The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘santa claus’

The Physics of Santa 2.0

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2014

Years ago I posted here about how I kill Santa with science, and it goes without saying that doing so can get quite a reaction out of people. Some reactions have been negative, but a surprising number of people have contacted me actually thanking me for killing the Santa myth.  In fact, I was recently commissioned to write a formal article on killing Santa with science for TESConnect, an educational magazine and networking organization centered in the UK.  I am happy to share with you the full article in all of its colored glory, along with explicit physics calculations, below… Happy Holidays! :)

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Posted in education, humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The “Season of Reason” Returns!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 27, 2013

This time of year it seems that just about everyone celebrates some kind of holiday.  Some are explicitly religious in nature, such as Christmas or Hanukkah, while some secular holidays are being celebrated at about the same time.  It is in the spirit (pardon the pun) of furthering critical thinking & skepticism among the population at large that I share with you the JREF’s annual Season of Reason initiative. Whether you are religious or not, I think we can all agree that reason is something we need more of in our society, so I hope that you consider donating to this worthy cause…

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The James Randi Educational Foundation invites you to give during our annual Season of Reason fundraising campaign. Over half of our annual support comes during this critical year-end period and we couldn’t continue fighting charlatans and promoting critical thinking without it.

This year, we’re asking you to help us raise a total of $200,000 to support our unique educational mission in 2014. Such support helps the JREF to continue to extend the important work of James Randi, influential skeptic and social critic who has for decades stood against the prevailing cults of nonsense and supernatural charlatans of every stripe.

Every dollar counts! Your Season of Reason 2013 contribution will help us equip more educators to teach students skepticism, support more grassroots campaigns to fight charlatanry, and take on more public figures and celebrities who promote dangerous nonsense. To make a tax-deductible donation to the JREF right now, please fill out and submit the form below.

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Myths and Misconceptions About Christmas

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 15, 2012

Once again the season is upon us, when much of the world’s population celebrates Christmas and all the holiday trappings thereof.  I’ve made numerous posts on the subject before, including The Physics of Santa Claus, how the idea of Santa Claus can be used as a tool to teach critical thinking to kids (including a podcast interview I did on the subject), and the tongue-in-cheek celebration of Newtonmass :)

And, of course, along with all of that, there is not to be missed the chance to spread some skepticism and critical thinking regarding Christmas in general.  To help with that, my skeptical colleague Phil over at Skeptic Money has once again posted the Ultimate Christmas Quiz that you can use to test your (and that of your friends and family) knowledge of the holiday.  You might be surprised to learn about all of the myths and/or misconceptions which exist in popular culture about Christmas…

Ultimate Christmas Quiz

Ultimate Christmas Quiz

Note:  if you enjoy this quiz, check out The Ultimate Easter Quiz.

There are 12 questions below, how many will you get right?  Can you do better than your friends?  Your christian friends?

Pull out a piece of paper and mark your answers.

FYI… The answers are at the bottom (no cheating….) count your correct answers and see how you score.

The Ultimate Christmas Quiz – By David Fitzgerald

1. What year was Jesus born?

a. We don’t know for sure, since the gospels disagree irreconcilably.

b. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was during the reign of Herod the Great (died around 4 B.C.).

c. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was when Quirinius was governor of Syria (6 A.D.).

d. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was the year the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars.

e. D’uh! The year zero, of course.

2. According to the Gospels, what day was Jesus born?

a. Dec 25th.

b. Dec 24th.

c. No date is given in any gospel.

d. The day of the Winter Solstice.

e. The third night of Hanukkah.

3. What pagan holiday did later Christians “borrow” to celebrate Jesus’ birthday?

a. The Greek Brumalia festival

b. The Roman feast of Saturnalia

c. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”)

d. All of the above

e. None of the above

4. So what day was Jesus really born? 

a. Jan 6

b. Feb 2 (Groundhog Day)

c. March 25

d. We can’t be certain.

e. Sometime during Sukkoth, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles

5. According to Mark (the oldest gospel) where was Jesus born?

a. He doesn’t say.

b. By the chimney, with care.

c. In his parent’s house in Nazareth.

d. A manger in Bethlehem.

e. A cave in Bethlehem.

6. According to Luke, who were the Wise Men?

a. A group of 2 – 12 Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia.

b. Three kings of orient bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from afar.

c. There were no Wise Men.

d. Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.

e. Melchior of Persia, Caspar (or Gaspar) of India, and Balthazar of Arabia.

7. According to Matthew, who showed up on the night of Jesus’ birth?

a. Shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night

b. An angel and a multitude of the heavenly host

c. The prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna

d. Ten lords a-leaping

e. No one.

8. What happened after Jesus’ birth?

a. Impossible to say for sure – two of the gospels tell completely contradictory stories, and the other two say nothing.

b.  Good tidings were brought for him and his kin; and then figgy pudding, for they would not go until they get some.

c. Scary stuff: An angel warns Joseph via a dream to flee their home in Bethlehem for Egypt. Herod kills all the baby boys in the region. After Herod’s death, they return to Judea but are afraid of Herod’s son, so they move to Nazareth in Galilee instead (evidently, Matthew forgot that Galilee was ruled by Herod’s other son!).

d. Happy stuff: The shepherds spread the good news to all, baby Jesus is circumcised, and after the obligatory 40 days for ritual purity, brought to the temple in Jerusalem where prophets hail him as the Christ. They return home to Nazareth and go back to Jerusalem every year for Passover until Jesus is twelve.

e. We aren’t told, the gospels immediately cut to his adulthood.

9. Which of these traditional Christmas elements were originally pagan?

a. Christmas Trees

b. Yule Logs

c. The Birth of the Savior

d. Boughs of Holly and Sprigs of Mistletoe

e. All of the above

10. Where does the word “Yuletide” come from?

a. It’s an abbreviation of the Latin ultimus ides, “last holiday of the year.”

b. From Germanic/Old Norse “Jul-time” or “Jól-time” (the midwinter fest).

c. Named after Julius Caesar, who invented Sanctus Clausius, the Roman Santa Claus.

d. Named in honor of Hywll Tydd, ancient Welsh god of reindeer and socks.

e. Nordic priests copied the name from the Christian Christmastide.

11. Who started the War on Christmas?

a. True American Christian Fundamentalists and the Founding Fathers

b. Richard Dawkins

c. Godless atheists, the liberal media, gays and lesbians, activist judges, science teachers, lawyers, the ACLU, democrats and everyone else we hate.

d. The Jews

e. Al Qaida

12. Our familiar modern American “Santa Claus” is based on all these earlier figures, EXCEPT for:

a. The English Father Christmas, Charles Dickens’ characters and the Victorian cartoons of Thomas Nast.

b. The Dutch Santa, Sinterklaas or Goedheiligman

c. A de-horned, sanitized, anagram of Satan.

d. Mighty Norse thunder god Thor’s father, Odin

e. St. Nikolaos, 4th-century Greek bishop and patron saint of children.

Bonus Question! (re-gifted from the Ultimate Easter Quiz)

13. Who wrote these gospels, anyway?

a. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – I mean, come on, it says so right there.

b. Actually, none of the gospels even claim to be written by eyewitnesses -all were originally anonymous and written at least a generation later.

c. Well, it’s more like the end of first century for Mark and sometime in the early to mid 2nd century for the others, if you must know.

d. Hold on – Not only that, but Matthew and Luke just reworked Mark gospel, adding their own material and tweaking Mark’s text to better fit what they thought it should say.

Incidentally, if you want the answers, then you have to go visit Phil’s website for them.  Cheers! :D

 

Posted in religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Skeptical Teacher Interview on Token Skeptic

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 27, 2011

Based upon my recent blog post concerning using mythology as a critical thinking tool for children, I was interviewed a few days ago by my skeptical colleague Kylie Sturgess of the Token Skeptic podcast.  In the interview we discussed a variety of topics related to this issue, with a touch of fun thrown in for good measure.  Check it out! :)

Episode Ninety-Six — On Critical Thinking And Santa (Again) — Interview with Matt Lowry

Posted by Podblack on Sunday, December 25, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 27:59 — 25.6MB) | Embed

Recently Matt Lowry wrote a blog-post on Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids – just as Tim Minchin wrote a piece for the New Statesman about his own efforts to balance a pro-naturalistic worldview and living a life unencumbered by superstition, while raising kids and encouraging a love of fiction.

Matt Lowry is best known as the Skeptical Teacher – a high school physics teacher, plus a part-time physics and astronomy college professor, contributor to the James Randi Educational Foundation Education Advisory Group and awesome presenter for kids’ shows at Dragon*Con.

For this interview we talk about all of these things (and whether Santa might actually be a Time Lord with a sleigh made out of quantum-something-or-other).

During the discussion, we also talk about Barbara Drescher’s blog-post at the JREF Swift: An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even JesusHere’s another great link to the Physics of Santa!

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2011

As I’ve mentioned before, every year I do a quick physics lesson on Santa Claus, with the result being a devastation of the Santa myth (see my previous post “How I Killed Santa”: The Physics of Santa Claus for more on this :) )  Yeah, I admit it – I’m evil.

Of course, that lesson is more geared towards students who are in their late teenage years, because by then they already know that Santa isn’t real.  So, while the humor involved in my analysis is quite dark (Santa dies pretty spectacularly in the end), there isn’t going to be any real psychological trauma done to my students.

However, this year it got something of a debate going among some of my students.  Some wondered about the appropriateness of sharing such a lesson with young children, who might still harbor a sincere belief in Santa Claus.  Personally, I expressed the view that if I were to try to get my own children (if I had any) to think more critically about the Santa myth, I certainly wouldn’t do it using the same method in my physics classes where he ends up bursting into flames and squashed to jelly by atrociously large g-forces!

So, the question was put to me: “How would you deal with the whole Santa Claus thing if you had kids?”  It is a worthwhile question, because I certainly wouldn’t want my kids to be simply blindly believing in Santa just because all the other kids are doing it.  Chances are, when the kids are of the appropriate age (I’d think 5 or 6 would be about right), I would ask them some leading questions about the nature of Santa.

Specifically, if I were at the mall with one of my children and there were a worker there dressed as Santa meeting with kids (you know the usual scene), I would encourage them to observe Santa closely…

Image source

I would encourage them to note carefully details such as how big is Santa, exactly what is he wearing, and so on.  In order to help them with their observations, I would probably take photos for later analysis.  Then I would make sure to tell them to pay careful attention to Santa’s voice as they sit on his lap to discuss what Santa and kids discuss (I might also record video of the event for this reason).

After that, I would take my children to another mall (because, let’s face it, most of us do our shopping at more than one place, right?).  I would make sure to find the Santa at that second mall, and have my kid go through the entire process again.  And so on.

Then, at a later time, I would take some time to sit down and look over the evidence with my children, leading them through it and noting inconsistencies between the multiple Santas they’ve observed.  This would be especially interesting if we saw more than one in the same night! (“So Dad, how did Santa get from one mall to the other so quickly?” ;) )

The bottom line here is that I wouldn’t want to come right out and tell my kids that Santa is a myth (though a fun and jolly one at that).  Rather, I would use the entire experience as a lesson for my kids to try thinking it through on their own, making careful observations, weighing the evidence, and drawing the obvious conclusions.  I think this would be a far more useful way to introduce children to the reality that Santa isn’t real, and it would also be an excellent exercise in encouraging critical thinking and skepticism in youngsters.

For more on this topic and approach, I highly recommend reading my colleague Barbara Drescher’s well-written post at the JREF Swift blog titled An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even Jesus.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Support the JREF’s “Season of Reason”

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 19, 2011

I just wanted to take a few minutes to pass along to you a fundraising campaign from the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “Season of Reason 2011″.  The poster boy for this campaign is none other than James Randi himself, because do you know any other skeptic who looks more like Santa?  See for yourself…

  Is Santa really James Randi?  Hmmm, I’m skeptical, but the resemblance is uncanny… (Images from Wikipedia and the JREF) ;)

All humor aside, I can say that the JREF is one of the most active of all the skeptical organizations out there, and they indeed serve the purpose of promoting reason quite effectively.  If you have a few spare dollars you’re willing to donate, please consider making an end-of-the-year tax deductible donation to the JREF – here is James Randi’s letter seeking donations for this worthy cause…

Friends,

As we near the end of 2011, I’m pleased to say that this has been the JREF’s most productive and effective year on record.

We’ve made some major strides this year in standing up for rational thinking in a world of widespread belief in the paranormal and other harmful claims — our media work including our appearance on Primetime Nightline, our nationwide challenge to proponents of homeopathy and the pharmaceutical chains that peddle it, our zombie horde that made headlines at James Van Praagh’s “Spirit Circle,” our new free educational materials, the grants and scholarships we’ve awarded, our support for local grassroots activism, our new ebooks and mobile apps, the ever-increasing success of TAM, and much more!

None of that would have happened if not for the support we received from concerned and dedicated skeptics and science advocates like you during last year’s Season of Reason. Like most other nonprofits, the majority of our annual donations come in during this critical year-end period, and that largely keeps us going for the following year.

Now we at the JREF are focused squarely on 2012… and it’s beginning to look a lot like reason.

We’re gearing up to enter 2012 with some momentum – and thanks to the hard work and dedication of the JREF staff, we’re preparing exciting new initiatives for coming months, as well as expanding several current projects. But I must tell you that it is only with your generous support that we can possibly do this.

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“How I Killed Santa”: The Physics of Santa Claus

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 18, 2009

I’m a bad, bad person.  No kidding, I’m bad – really, really bad.  I say this because in my physics classes today, I killed Santa Claus. Well, to be more accurate, what I did was use our knowledge of physics to kill the fantasy of Santa Claus (because it’s pretty damn hard to kill something that isn’t real).  And I have no guilt at all for doing this, because if 16-18 year old kids are still harboring some kind of actual belief in Santa, then they need a strong dose of reality laid on them! :)

So how did I do it?  Just how did I kill the Santa fantasy?  Here’s how… I used a brief PowerPoint presentation to make the following argument:

  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 the 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, and assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second.
  4. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of his 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.
  5. 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 purpose of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75.5 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.
  6. This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3000 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.
  7. 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.
  8. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that “flying reindeer” (refer to point #1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal load, 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 – 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison – this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth (the ship, not the woman).
  9. 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy per SECOND, EACH!
  10. In short, they will burst into flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create a deafening sonic boom in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second! Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to forces 17,500 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!!!

Thus, in conclusion: If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, HE’S DEAD NOW!!!

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Okay Fine… Happy Groundhog Day

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 3, 2009

What’s a skeptic to do? With all the crazy pseudoscientific woo in the world to deal with, every now and then I just have to give in and go along with it. No, don’t worry, I’m not talking about becoming a fan of uber-douchebag Kevin Trudeau or believer in crystal energy & other New Age weirdness. Rather, I’m referring to some nutty, and kind of fun, traditions that U.S. society follows. I’m talking about Groundhog Day.

groundhog

The story goes like so… since 1886, every February 2nd, a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil (not always the same one since the critters aren’t immortal) comes out of his burrow in Punxsutawney, PA and is expected to react to whether or not he sees his shadow. The legend has it that if he doesn’t see his shadow due to cloudy weather then it means winter is close to an end; however, if ol’ Phil does see his shadow in the sunny weather and, as the story is supposed to go, retreats back into his burrow then winter is to last for about six more weeks.

Now, how a little rodent getting, or not getting, spooked by its shadow is supposed to accurately predict the weather for the next month-and-a-half is beyond me. I recall learning the story as a kid, and I thought to myself “How’s that supposed to work?” I guess I figured that as time went on some responsible adult would tell me how ol’ Phil had such amazing powers of precognition.

Alas, after a few years I, like most children I suppose, figured it out for myself that there wasn’t really anything to it. Of course, despite the silliness of seriously considering that a groundhog can predict the weather, there does seem to be quite a party atmosphere around the event in Punxsutawney, PA every February 2nd. And, as people who know me can tell you, I can appreciate a good party :)

But, believe it or not, there actually do seem to be some people who believe the groundhogs know their stuff – no really, I’m not kidding. According to Wikipedia, the GDPs (Groundhog Day Proponents – “believers” sounds just a little too creepy) maintain that the groundhogs get the prediction right somewhere from 75% to 90% of the time! Of course, when stacked up next to climate data from the National Climate Data Center, the real accuracy of the predictions is closer to 39%.

So why does this myth persist? For that matter, why do most myths in our society persist – from Groundhog Day to Santa Claus to the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy? I suppose part of it is because today’s adults were told these stories as children, and – here’s a big part of it – there was a considerable amount of celebration & fun associated with these myths. It is assumed that many, hopefully all, kids will eventually figure out there is nothing to the myth – it’s kind of like a right-of-passage.

There is a lesson here for skeptical parents with children: you can use events like Groundhog Day and such to teach kids about where the line between reality and fantasy lies. Take the opportunity to teach your kids to employ their critical thinking skills at a young age when dealing with such myths. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you take the fun out of the event – enjoy the egg hunt at Easter with your kids, but help them understand that it’s all in fun and that the Easter Bunny isn’t real.

If more parents would teach their kids at a younger age that employing a healthy skepticism & flexing those critical thinking skills is a good thing (how many times did you hear as a kid “Don’t ask questions like that”?), then I think in the long run we’d all be better off for it.

Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!

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