An Engineering Analysis of Santa Claus

December 9, 2004 | 15 comments
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To prove that engineers have a sense of humor, I send the following to my family every year at Christmas. I wish I could say I wrote it, but I didn’t, and don’t know who did. Perhaps you’ve seen it before. If not, enjoy.

Santa Claus: An Engineer’s Perspective

There are approximately two billion children (persons under 18) in the world. However, since Santa does not visit children of Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist (except maybe in Japan) religions, this reduces the workload for Christmas night to 15% of the total, or 378 million (according to the population reference bureau).

At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that comes to 108 million homes, presuming that there is at least one good child in each.

Different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical), this works out to 967.7 visits per second.

This is to say that for each Christian household with a good child, Santa has around 1/1000th of a second to park the sleigh, hop out, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left for him, get back up the chimney, jump into the sleigh and get on to the next house.

Assuming that each of these 108 million stops is evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false, but will accept for the purposes of our calculations), we are now talking about 0.78 miles per household; a total trip of 75.5 million miles, not counting bathroom stops or breaks.

This means Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest manmade vehicle, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second, and a conventional reindeer can run (at best) 15 miles per hour.

The payload of the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium sized Lego set (two pounds), the sleigh is carrying over 500 thousand tons, not counting Santa himself. On land, a conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that the “flying” reindeer could pull ten times the normal amount, the job can’t be done with eight or even nine of them. Santa would need 360,000 of them. This increases the payload, not counting the weight of the sleigh, another 54,000 tons, or roughly seven times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth (the ship, not the monarch).

600,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance. This would heat up the reindeer in the same fashion as a spacecraft reentering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer would absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy per second each. In short, they would burst into flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them and creating deafening sonic booms in their wake.

The entire reindeer team would be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second, or right about the time Santa reached the fifth house on his trip.

Not that it matters, however, since Santa, as a result of accelerating from a dead stop to 650 m.p.s. in .001 seconds, would be subjected to acceleration forces of 17,500 g’s. A 250 pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of the sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force, instantly crushing his bones and organs and reducing him to a quivering blob of pink goo.

Therefore, even if Santa did exist, he’s dead now.

Merry Christmas.

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15 Responses to An Engineering Analysis of Santa Claus

  1. Russell Arben Fox on December 9, 2004 at 11:12 am

    Obviously, Glen, I’m really going to have to write that defense of Santa Claus post I’ve been thinking about. Disbeliever!

  2. Frank McIntyre on December 9, 2004 at 11:25 am

    This is too theoretical. We need some evidence. Let’s dress a 250 pound man up in a Santa suit and apply 4,315,015 pounds of force.
    We should also accelerate some reindeer to 3000 times the speed of sound, just to make sure they blow up.

    Just to be sure.

  3. Glen Henshaw on December 9, 2004 at 11:27 am

    So then, can I safely assume that you are a fan of one of the finest shows on television, Mythbusters? Maybe we should suggest this as a show segment.

  4. Derek on December 9, 2004 at 12:00 pm

    Think they’ll get Adam to put on the suit, or will it be another job for Buster?

  5. Frank McIntyre on December 9, 2004 at 12:09 pm

    I’ve actually never heard of it. When and where does it air?

  6. Glen Henshaw on December 9, 2004 at 12:17 pm

    Discovery channel, Wednesday at 9.

    THe format is that they take a number of urban legends — can your child really fly away if she has too many helium balloons, say — and try to prove it true or false by replicating the conditions in the legend. If, as is usually the case, the legend is proven false, they then try to duplicate the results, ie they figure out how many balloons it really takes to carry your child away. Ordinarily in the course of a show several things are blown up, shot at, or otherwise violently destroyed. I highly recommend it, especially if you enjoy watching tv without your spouse.

  7. Karl Butcher on December 9, 2004 at 12:18 pm

    Just type “Mythbusters” into tivo and let it pick them up for you.

    What? there’s still people without Tivo?

    I runs on Discovery channel several times a week. I think new eps are on tuesdays at 10pm.

  8. David King Landrith on December 9, 2004 at 1:00 pm

    Didn’t the FARMS Review devote an entire issue to rebutting this analysis?

  9. Aaron Brown on December 9, 2004 at 1:17 pm

    As a child, I must admit none of this occurred to me. What did occur to me was that there was something fishy about Santa visiting me, but not managing to visit all those starving kids in other countries that I saw on T.V. Why should Santa give me gifts, when my parents could presumably buy them themselves? All these other kids should have been the focus of Santa’s attention, yet strangely, they weren’t.

    We need a theodicy of Santa.

    Aaron B

  10. Josh Kim on December 9, 2004 at 1:51 pm

    I thought Santa Claus exists by faith…

  11. lyle on December 9, 2004 at 1:55 pm

    The Polar Express movie, i.e. ‘the’ kid in the movie, expressed similar engineering/physics type doubts. However, the word is “believe”…

  12. D. Fletcher on December 9, 2004 at 1:58 pm

    I believe this information was originally written and published in the late, great SPY magazine, about 1988.

  13. Peggy Snow Cahill on December 9, 2004 at 9:47 pm

    Funny post, I’m sure my engineer hubby will get a kick out of it. And putting it on Mythbusters is a great idea. We watch the show, sans Tivo, because alas, we are of the tiny minority who are Tivo-less, but perhaps Santa will rectify the situation this Christmas. Honestly, I didn’t grow up believing in Santa, which is a good thing because I looked around and saw the mean rich kids with lots of toys and I was a pretty good kid but never got much (15 kids in our non-LDS family), so I decided pretty quick that I should put my faith in something besides Santa.
    I am no engineer, but I love that my husband is. Such realism! ;)

  14. Adam Greenwood on December 10, 2004 at 12:26 am

    It’s easy, Aaron Brown.

    Those kids on TV don’t really exist . . .

  15. Lisa on December 10, 2004 at 2:33 am

    Tivo? I don’t even have cable. I waste enough time on the internet.

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