The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for December 18th, 2009

“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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

126th Skeptic’s Circle @ Weird Things

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 18, 2009

The latest installment of the infamous Skeptic’s Circle is now being hosted over at the Weird Things blog – which is all about “exploring science, the strange, and the unknown”.  Sounds like my kind of place! 🙂

Go on and check it out…

Posted in internet, skeptical community, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hubble Space Telescope Sees Cosmic Christmas Ornament?

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 18, 2009

Earlier this week, a news story made the rounds making the somewhat tongue-in-cheek claim that the Hubble Space Telescope had imaged a “cosmic Christmas ornament” in the sky.  Here’s the image…

The article then goes on to state:

The Hubble Space Telescope has captured a festive view of the cosmos in time for the holiday season, with some saying the picture of a star nursery looks like a wreath, maybe a Christmas tree, or even Santa.

The spacecraft observed a group of young stars called R136, which is only a few million years old and inhabits the 30 Doradus Nebula, part of a relatively nearby satellite galaxy of our Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud.

In the photograph, hundreds of brilliant blue stars are surrounded by a ring of warm, glowing orange clouds of dust. The colorful portrait evokes a giant wreath of pine boughs studded with glowing jewels — sort of. And in the hollow center, the dark shadow has the distinct silhouette of a Christmas tree. Really!

Finally, if flipped 90 degrees clockwise, the image even resembles the face and beard of Santa Claus himself. Somewhat.

Well, whether or not this heavenly view actually has anything to do with the season on Earth, it does teach scientists about what’s happening up above.

This humorous story does a good job of hitting upon the point I wanted to make: what you see in such images, whether they are of “Santa” in a cosmic nebulae in the sky or “Jesus” in a rusty clothing-iron, is the result of a well-known phenomenon called pareidolia. We see familiar patterns because we are trained, by both evolution & our upbringing, to see familiar images even when there’s nothing more than random noise present.

In short, pareidolia is in your head, and different people “see” different things.  More than anything, pareidolia tells us a lot about ourselves and what we’re thinking rather than what we believe we’re looking at.

Posted in psychology, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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