Bah Humbug! The Weekly Scientist on Christmas, Part One

To anyone who has been keeping up with global events, an ever-approaching Christmas will probably met with the same iota of excitement reserved for rescheduling a rectal examination two days ahead. Stratospheric tuition fees are threatening to widen the social divide and the economy is still being flushed down the diamond-encrusted toilets of worldwide investment bankers. Meanwhile (pause for intake of breath), Cliff Richard has had a new album out since October. Eeek! Nonetheless, ‘tis the season to be merry, (because they say so) and to get us into that tepid festive mood, The Weekly Scientist shall have the pleasure of regaling you wonderful readers with everything Christmas and science-related. Christmas and Science? Thought you’d never hear those two words uttered in the same breath? Think again….

A Christmas Feast: The calorific equivalent to downing a jar of lard?

It’s like a scene from a Nigella Lawson wet dream: blushing roast beef slices drizzled in copious amounts of onion gravy, sour-cream-slathered potato latkes oozing with temptation, cheese-broccoli quiches to turn the most health-conscious vegetarian gluttonous, pigs-in-blankets everywhere you look, and the star of the show, the turkey, baked to an orgasmic, sinus-tingling crescendo. Started dribbling on your keyboard already? Now, imagine all of that heavenly goodness with an extra side of hypertension, arteriosclerosis, or a heart attack. Cruel of me, I know, but that’s apparently what we are asking for every time we gorge ourselves on momma’s Christmas cooking.

Many of us will have joked about returning from our Christmas holidays with thighs like jelly puddings, but according to scientists, those extra five pounds some people put on might lead to serious health complications in the long run. A study conducted at the University of Porto made a discovery to have you think twice about heaping on the sausage stuffing. 137 female students of ages 17 to 30 were weighed right before and after the holiday season to investigate how much they load on post-Christmas-binge. On average, these women gained up to 1.39 kg, and that’s excluding the 1.57 kg they put on in fat. Doesn’t sound like something to dampen the Christmas mood for most of us, until you consider this: contributors were weighed again one year after the first measurement, and though it turned out that their weights had slightly decreased, a mean weight gain of 0.74 kg and 0.86 kg of fat still remained. So, in retrospect, the pounds that we put on during that obligatory Yuletide blowout are very hard to lose; most of it stays behind (unless you are particularly dedicated to hitting the treadmill) and adds up, year after year after year….

According to a very similar study by Jack Yanovski, the overweight and the obese are the most likely sufferers of this annual trouser-width-stretching predicament. His investigation discovered that people with a proclivity to return from their Christmas holidays with an extra 2.3 kg were commonly overweight or obese. That puts this category at a particularly high risk; yet this doesn’t exactly get the rest of us off the hook. To understand why Christmas is such a dangerous period for our waistline, we need to take a closer look at those culinary delights we just can’t help but cram into our mouths. Nutritionist Barbara Rolls observed the eating habits of people during Christmas and concluded that sixty percent of her contributors ate more when they had four different things to pick from. Four, being obscenely frugal as far as my seasonal overindulgence goes.

Then, there is that magic number: 6, 000. That’s the mean number of calories a Christmas meal can add up to, a cellulite-laden three times more than the recommended daily serving of a woman, and 2.5 times more than what us blokes should be eating. Let’s not forget the apéritif. Alcoholic beverages are a must in some British households and not only throw our inhibitions out of the window, but our diet. A cup of eggnog laced with brandy or some other vital alcoholic ingredient can contain up to 343 calories and 20 grams of fat. Hot buttered rum, which sounds like the liquid equivalent of the fried mars bar, is heavy with about 400 calories and 13 grams of fat. And I haven’t even gotten to the desserts, which would probably frighten many of you into skipping Christmas dinner all together.

Substituting your auntie’s award-winning sweet potatoes with stalks of cold celery is one rather extreme means to maintaining a thinner physique this Christmas, but there is always the providence of restraint. Unless your dinner is being served on plates with wheels, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about it rolling away, so how about not stuffing yourself until bursting point and leaving some for tomorrow? No? Well, then enjoy it while it lasts, because come next year, the treadmill awaits.

Quanta Claus does it again…

Every Christmas Eve, in an underground moon base NASA has yet to discover, a cyborg Time Lord with a penchant for sticking gifts beneath people’s Christmas trees is setting his Heisenberg Compensator to Planet Earth’s coordinates. Or at least that’s what I’d imagine he would be using, for as it stands, the likelihood of this bearded benefactor achieving his one-night mission on a mere airborne sleigh appears to be very, very slim. Rudolph might not be soaring across the skies in a trail of magical fairy dust, but there is one rather curious piece of scientific literature that floats around the internet at this time of the year. It’s called the “Physics of Santa” and is one painstaking attempt at deflating our every childhood hope of there being a Santa Claus. The identity of its original author is shrouded in mystery (I presume a deluge of death threats has forced him or her to go into hiding). The science, however, appears be pretty well-calculated, if a bit dated, e.g. the world population has significantly increased since the time “The Physics of Santa” was written. Also note that many of these figures have been rounded up. For the sake of consistency, I shall stick to the original numbers….

Let’s see. If there were a Santa Claus with a yet unknown flying reindeer species at his disposal, he’d have circa 31 hours to achieve his feat of bestowing gifts to the world’s children in one night (that is remembering the different time zones and so forth). There are approximately 2 billion children worldwide. Santa Claus, however, is a bit of an old-fashioned bigot (all those lonely years on the North Pole, I say) and only visits the 378 million Christian children that believe in him. With an average of 3.5 children living in each home, he’d have approximately 91.8 million houses to visit, and before you freak out at that gruesome repercussions of .5, we shall pretend that there is at least one well-behaved child in every one of those households.

Our dear racist Santa needs to stop at 822.6 houses per second, and has only 1/1000th of a second to complete his jumping down chimneys, depositing wrapped-up gifts, munching cookies, downing milk, climbing back up chimneys, flying off to the next house repertoire. To make sure that he gets from one place to the other in time, his sleigh’s speedometer will have to be swirling at around 650 miles per second, which, to put it all into perspective for non-physicists, is 3000 times the speed of sound.

Evidently, ultrasonic Santa won’t be travelling light. Even if the recession had hit him hard and he was only handing out cheap Lego sets to save his bank account, his sleigh would still be weighed down by a staggering 321, 300 tons — minus its fat inhabitant. Then there is the logistical nightmare of his reindeers. Imagining that flying reindeers can drag along about ten times more than our normal reindeers (3000 pounds), we’d still need about to 214, 200 to get us across the globe. 214, 200 reindeers plus 321, 300 tons of Lego leaves Santa with an impressive armada of 353, 430 tons to grapple with. And that is neglecting Santa and his sleigh.

The real climax of this incongruous calculation lies at the wonders of Newton’s third law. Every action has a reaction. In this case, we are dealing with air resistance, and LOTS of it. The amount of air resistance being exerted against Santa’s lumbering Christmas troop will be so immense that within a matter of milliseconds, Rudolph and Dasher and Dancer and Comet (et cetera) will burn up in the atmosphere with a sonic boom like Christmas crackers being popped (only about umpteen decibels louder, of course). All over the world, children will have woken up to the festive noises and smells of roasted reindeer; and Santa, well, he’d be subjected to a force about the strength of three Empire State Buildings being put on top of him, so he would not only burn up and die, but probably disintegrate. In the end, there might be no gifts, but there will certainly be plenty of sparkly Santa dust in the night sky….

Nevertheless, not every scientist is as hard-hearted as to dismiss the existence of a Santa Claus. Some scientists claim that the above theory is only based on Newtonian physics and thus invariably flawed. Instead, if we were to go by the musings of our favourite fuzzy-bearded German physicist, we might just be able explain how Santa does it. One of Einstein’s most acclaimed laws states that E = mc^2 (the energy of an object equals its mass multiplied by a conversion factor squared), which means that physical matter can be converted into energy. Scientists have known for a while now that electrons can act as both particles and as waves, so why wouldn’t Santa be capable of this too? Perhaps, our most beloved octogenarian is light years ahead of us and has invented some sort of machine that turns his physical body into an intangible wave. This wave could be at several places all at once and even travel at the speed of light. Forget about flying reindeers; these reindeers can champion the very laws of this universe!

Continuing along this sci-fi-Santa-Claus line of thought, maybe the old man has access to more than just four dimensions. String theorists believe that our universe consists of up to 10 dimensions, of which we can only perceive four. If Santa could take advantage of all of these dimensions, he could probably be everywhere all at once. Though, if that’s true, we’d have to change his name to Quanta Claus to go with his nifty quantum-space-bending abilities.

And then there is the entire metaphysical debacle of Santa Claus “existing” simply because some children believe in him. It’s a can of worms as far as I am concerned; hence before I explode our heads like those poor flying reindeers earlier, let us all just pretend that Santa Claus does exist for the sake of our own mental health.

To be continued…

Eric John

Editor’s Note: That’s all for the first part of my Christmas ramblings. Please look forward to Part Two, which shall be up next week (unless I get assassinated by a very peed off Quanta Claus)! Then, The Weekly Scientist will be going on holiday and return after the exam season.

(Image Courtesy of Kevin Dooley)

2 Comments on this post.
  • Doñah Sabbagh
    9 December 2010 at 00:51
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    Really like the article Eric, although not very happy with how much you’ve put me off my Christmas indulgences!!! When I come back from my holidays having gone without my Christmas dinner, freezing my socks off due to a lack of much needed extra-insulation, you and this article can hold yourselves responsible!!! =P

  • Manoser
    10 December 2010 at 11:26
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