STRANGE BUT TRUE- Stuffing Santa: Old Elf gets too many sweets


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. If Santa consumed even one-millionth of the goodies kids set out for him at many homes throughout the world, his large girth would be easily accounted for. How might dietary scientists weigh in on this? –A. Wenneson

A. Thousands of years ago, being able to store large quantities of energy-dense fuel in the form of adipose (fatty) tissue spelled survival when food was scarce, says Roger Highfield in The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey. But today's plentiful food and sedentary lifestyles have nixed all that, bringing on an obesity health crisis. (Note Santa's hardworking trimmer-slimmer elves.)

Scientists are still puzzled, though: Why does Santa crave so much food? Are the satiety mechanisms at work within his brain awry? How are his food energies used and the excess stored? 

Synchronizing eating habits with energy demands is tricky. Likely, though, it's a head and hormone thing, not a belly thing, even if that's where the world manifestly spots it. Santa, like the rest of us, has inherited a Stone Age brain and its appetites, says Highfield, making it easier to overeat fats such as ice cream than carbohydrates such as potatoes, and much easier to overdo carbs than proteins (which are almost never put out on those nice-little-kid-offering plates).

Q. What's Santa carrying around anyway– a really, really big abdomen, a really, really big stomach, a really, really big tummy, a really, really big gut, or a really, really big belly? –P.M. Roget

A. Not long ago, the genteel word "limb" was customarily substituted for the vulgar-sounding "leg," says Mark Davidson in Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today's American English Usage. Maybe Santa sported a baby-talk, euphemistic "tummy" in those days, but many people today continue the old practice of using the technical "abdomen" for the supposedly indelicate "belly." But "belly"– old English for "bag, purse"– is the appropriate nontechnical term for the portion of the body between the chest and the thighs. 

"Stomach" and "gut" won't work because they're actually two organs inside the belly. So belly's best here. Besides, what else within the bounds of rhyme and reason might shake "when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly"? 

Q. What's the Christmas lighting effect Santa sees when flying into large cities? –L. Lustberg

A. Streetlights can appear as seasonal green when glimpsed from afar, yet when Santa gets close, the lights appear their customary white, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. Even odder, Christmas tree lights viewed from a distance will tend to look primarily red– Mr. Claus's sartorial color– when in reality, as he soon sees, they're many different colors. Nothing magical here: rather, the air and the tiny particles of pollution or smog in the city air scatter the blue light out of the light reaching more distant observers.

Q. Two New Year's Eve champagne puzzlers: Why do the bubbles in the drink rise so much faster than beer bubbles, and exactly how fast does the cork fly, for those carelessly popping it in a nearby celebrant's direction? –B. Fiske

A. Beer is loaded with proteins that stick to the uprising bubbles, creating drag that slows their ascent, says Jearl Walker. As for champagne pressure, it's about six times normal atmospheric pressure (15 x 6 = 90 psi), which can send the cork shooting out at about 50 km/hr (30 mph), more than enough to badly injure an eye. 

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.

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