Sunday, 19 December 2010

The riddle of Santa Claus

I watched part of a movie last night in which Whoopi Goldberg is persuaded to become Santa Claus. I woke up early dreaming about Santa Clause, which is why I’m writing while it is still dark. Whilst it is somewhat improbable, I'm sure Whoopi would make a great Santa, though she did take some persuading. While she was resisting the idea she did ask the obvious question, how do you get to three billion children in one night?

Assuming that night lasts about six hours, (though there’s no night at all around the south pole at Christmas, but fortunately no children live there) and being aware that time sort of moves around the globe on a daily basis I reckon that gives about 30 hours to get the job done, so a billion children every ten hours.

What is the average distance from one child to the next? I have no idea. Some children live very close together, but what about the little boy who lives down the lane? If we make the wild assumption that kids are on average a tenth of a mile apart, it keeps the arithmetic simple at least. Santa would need to cover a hundred million miles every ten hours - ten million miles per hour.

Light travels at 186282 miles per second, so at that speed he could cover the distance in less than a minute, leaving 59 minutes every hour for dashing up and down ten million chimneys and dropping off the parcels. At least that accounts for why we can’t see him, he’s going way to fast for the human eye to register.

It is possible therefore to conclude that Santa Claus doesn’t have to actually break any known laws of physics in order to get the job done, assuming he only has to do our planet. He could cover the distance and we wouldn’t see him if he did. Like Whoopi Goldberg being Santa it is improbable but not impossible.

That gets me on to the second part of my dream.

Douglas Adams invented the Infinite Improbability Drive. I’m not sure if invented is the right word, he included the notion in fiction, in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Universe series. A spaceship fitted with the drive could visit everywhere in the universe, pretty much at the same time. To work it, all you had to do was know when to get off.

In the case of Santa Claus, all he has to know is what to drop off. I woke up being somewhat surprised that Santa didn’t feature in Douglas Adams’ books. The great thing about the notion of infinite improbability is that it fills the gap between very unlikely and impossible. Think of a place that is so hard to get to that it is almost impossible, and that’s where Santa Claus lives. Infinitely improbable but just possible.

1 comment:

  1. of course, if Santa only delivers presents to children who truly believe in him with all their heart this will cut the numbers down considerably. Add to that not delivering to anyone who was even the teensiest bit naughty at anytime in the whole year and that probably leaves a very tiny number of people. Of course, My Aunt Alice got given coal one year as she had been bad, so maybe there is a coal truck alongside the present sleigh....