How on Earth?: Santa's travel secrets revealed


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR MCCLINTOCk

Q. From a strict logistical standpoint, how on Earth does Santa Claus manage to visit all the world's children in one short night each year? ­C. Moore

 A. The fundamental issue here is of course speed– time-wise and distance-wise. Suppose that the world's 5.6 billion people comprise about a billion households, roughly half of which have gift-age kids. Then our red-suited benefactor must squeeze down 500 million sooty chutes in a 24-hour period.This computes to roughly 20 million chimneys per hour, more than 300,000 a minute, affording scarcely one-five- thousandth of a second per home and hearth! The only lingering signs of St. Nick's too-brief-for-the-human-eye visit may be the smell of pipe smoke and the after-aura of love and kindness.

Now supposing the average distance between dwellings is about 40 feet, Mr. Claus' total itinerary traversed in enacting the night's largesse would come to about 4 million miles– more than 150 times around the Earth.

If travel and rooftop time are split 50-50, this leaves only 12 hours total between stops, during which Dasher, Dancer, Prancer & Co. must average a santastic 300,000 mph– faster than a comet!

Flying out from the North Pole and zigzagging their way westward across the Earth's 24 different time zones gaining an hour with each zone– Santa and his team "stretch out the night," arriving at each household at near the same wee hour of the morning.

Final matter is the weight of the toy-packed sleigh. If you assume just two pounds of gifts per household, the total cargo delivered is about a billion pounds, or half a million tons– roughly the freightage of a supertanker.

Which of course means that the "eight tiny reindeer" pulling the load are either strong beyond their size or were well up in the sky (shrinking their appearance) when the famous "Night Before Christmas" sighting occurred. Also, one must conclude that the sound of hooves upon the rooftop signified something quite other than the sleigh's full load coming to rest there– or "bowlful of jelly" would have aptly described a lot more than just Santa's "little round belly."

Q. What can be surmised, if anything, about the wondrous way in which Santa's reindeer can apparently defy gravity and fly? Needless to say, these must be very special animals. ­ Dr. Doolittle

A. You can rule out that they're somehow running on the air as a means of flight. Even if they could stay in the air, they would just be running in place, because there is simply insufficient friction between legs (of any dimension) and the air around them to "push off" against significantly.

Do these coursers sport invisible wings? Perhaps, but the wingspan needed to propel a tanker-sized sleigh would, by our calculation, dwarf a football field. And the downward push would whip up winds that could damage buildings below.

Rocket power would pose similar pitfalls: To accelerate a billion pounds to 300,000 mph in one second would require power equivalent to the output of billions of nuclear power plants.

In truth, we have no idea how Santa's reindeer fly. To borrow from a popular song of the season, there must be some magic in that old tireless team and in the merry hearts of their creators.

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

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