Magazine article The Spectator

The Secret of Rudolph's Red Nose

Magazine article The Spectator

The Secret of Rudolph's Red Nose

Article excerpt

CAN REINDEER FLY? by Roger Highfield Metro, 12.99, pp. 294

Some years ago there was a television series on Welsh history which my mother watched, having become convinced that in the course of his excitable delivery the presenter's false teeth would at some point pop out. They never did, but at the end my mother, to her bewilderment, found she knew a fair amount about Welsh history. I have had a similar experience with Dr Highfield's digressions on Christmas, in the course of which, and in spite of myself, I learned a fair amount about physics, biology and all those other trap doors into which half my class at school disappeared silently a long time ago.

Take Santa Claus. For him to deliver all those presents in one night to the 2,106 million children under 18 in the world would mean a fairly disastrous collision on his part with the laws of science. The speed involved would subject him to forces 17,500 times greater than gravity, and the reindeer, encountering air resistance, would be vapourised within four thousandths of a second, creating deafening sonic booms. The absence of such booms enabled Richard Dawkins, a sentimental soul, to disprove the existence of Santa to a sixyear-old.

Then there is Santa's weight, estimated by Dr Highfield to be around 30 stone, so the g force he will encounter is this times the necessary acceleration, which would be two billion times that experienced by any fighter pilot. And Santa has 4,212 million pounds of toys to deliver.

The message is clear: if you want to save on Christmas, talk to a scientist, especially in Britain where the spending on presents amounts to four per cent of an individual's annual income (and where eight per cent of the national economy is devoted to the production of such presents). With the help of a scientist Ebenezer Scrooge could have held off all the Spirits, kicked away Tiny Tim's crutch and died old.

Zoology comes in a rush with the reindeer. Rudolph's red nose, a chap at the University of Oslo wrote in Parasitology Today, was probably due to a parasitic infection of the respiratory system, reindeer being prone to such infections, especially when an effort like that involved in pulling Santa is added. This paper, the scientist recorded bemusedly, brought him more fame than anything else in his academic career. …

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