The Science of Santa

December 20, 2017

By Chip Underhill

Science has unlocked the secrets of some of the magic performed by Santa Claus in delivering Christmas presents to children all over the world, according to Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, assistant professor of physics at Saint Anselm College.

In researching “the physics of Santa,” several members of the global scientific community have addressed the speed, thermodynamics and other scientific characteristics of a sleigh borne by nine reindeer (counting Rudolph). Professor Gugliucci notes, however, that science has yet to tackle several basic questions that are equally critical elements of Santa’s night-time flight:

  • How can he carry presents for nearly two billion children?
  • How much energy is needed for a whirlwind trip around the globe?
  • What fortifies the reindeer for their travel?
  • How does Santa attend to his own biological needs in that busy 24-hour period?

Applying strict scientific discipline, Professor Gugliucci posits data-based theories to rationalize a response to each of these.

Black holes may explain Santa’s likely secret to conveying all those presents in one small sleigh.

“The most tightly packed objects in the universe are black holes,” says Gugliucci. “These masses are so densely packed that nothing escapes their gravitational pull once they get too close. The size of a black hole is dependent only on the mass and some fundamental constants, calculated by the Schwartzschild radius, the distance from a black hole’s center where nothing, not even light, can escape.”

“Now, if Santa delivers five pounds worth of presents per child to the 1.9 billion children around the world, that’s 9.5 billion pounds. That sounds like a lot but it would be infinitesimally small in a black hole. For example, a black hole with the mass of our Sun would be 3.8 miles across, but a black hole with the mass of 9.5 billion pounds of presents would be extremely tiny, one ten-millionth the width of an atom.”

Gugliuci concedes an as-yet unexplained problem with this hypothesis: “According to current physical theories, nothing that goes into a black hole can ever come out, and one piece of matter in the black hole is indistinguishable from another. That doesn’t sound like a great way to get your gifts.”

The energy required for moving presents around the world translates to three-quarters of a billion Calories.

Calories are a measure of the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through one degree centigrade. Continuing with her premise that Santa delivers 9.5 billion pounds of presents, Gugliucci employs the equation for kinetic energy, the energy created by an object’s motion.

“The kinetic energy for moving Santa’s payload depends on the speed at which it is moving,” says Gugliucci, “and while Santa’s load is lighter with each electronic gift, and as presents are distributed throughout the night, we can estimate about half the mass of his sleigh moves at 6,400 miles per hour, a speed calculated by astrophysicist Ethan Siegel. With our assumed mass moving at that speed, it would take about 720 million Calories (expressed as three trillion ‘Joules’).”

The goodies left for Santa and his reindeer are very likely critical to success of the operation.

“It’s safe to say that Santa’s reindeer aren’t going to stick to a 2,000 Calorie diet to get around,” Gugliucci says. “So how much food will they need? According to the San Diego Zoo, reindeer are primarily herbivores, and many little kids leave out carrots for the reindeer while leaving cookies for Santa. If a medium carrot has about 25 Calories, that means it’ll take 29 million carrots to power that trip, split up among the nine reindeer.”

NASA would do well to study Santa in preparing for travel to Mars.

Gugliucci again cites astrophysicist Seigel in tackling an unresolved question of the ages: “Siegel asks ‘If only we could answer the greatest of all Christmas mysteries: how does he go to the bathroom?’” Science again comes to the rescue.

“Who else has to sit in a suit for hours and hours without a restroom? Astronauts, of course! While waiting for liftoff or working a full day in a spacesuit, astronauts cannot just slip off to relieve themselves. Though current waste collection technology is woefully primitive, a recent challenge by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) brought forth three promising new designs on ways to dispose of human waste for up to six days in a safe and sanitary way. Not to mention, all that waste doesn’t need to go to, well, waste. Already, astronauts living aboard the International Space Station recycle up to 93% of their waste water and convert it into drinking water.”

Gugliucci believes NASA is probably discovering a system perfected by Santa over eons of experience. “In fact, Earthly space travelers can adopt other techniques and technology with further research.”

She closes with recognition that Santa is truly the embodiment of Christmas magic and science may never explain everything inherent with his age-old feat on the 25th of December. Gugliucci throws out the tantalizing prospect that “maybe Santa has developed an amazing technology the likes of which would make entrepreneur Elon Musk incredibly jealous.”

Merry Christmas!


Artwork by Kimberly Kersey Asbury, Associate Professor, Fine Arts, Saint Anselm College