Taking On Santa Skeptics With Science

Attention unbelievers: A new book uses science to explain just how Santa is able to deliver so many presents in one night, how he knows whether you've been naughty or nice and how he stays trim eating so many cookies. Author Gregory Mone discusses his book The Truth About Santa.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

(Soundbite of song, �Young at Heart�)

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you're young at heart.

FLATOW: If you woke up with presents under the tree today, well, lucky you. Santa decided you were nice rather than naughty and made the trip all the way from the North Pole to bring you that iPod or those new slippers. Now I hear some of you skeptics thinking no way, Santa isn't real and even if he was how could he deliver all those presents to all those people in one night? And how does he know who has been naughty or nice in the first place?

Well, my next guest has carefully studied the matter. His scientific conclusion: Santa is real and he is using some pretty sophisticated technology to make Christmas merry.

Joining me now to talk more about it is Gregory Mone. He is the author of the new book, �The Truth About Santa: Wormholes, Robots and What Really Happens on Christmas Eve.� Greg is a freelance science writer and novelist and he joins us from WGBH in Boston. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. GREGORY MONE (Author, �The Truth About Santa: Wormholes, Robots and What Really Happens on Christmas Eve�): Thank you very much, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Thank you very much. Now let's get into some of these things that you explain how Santa can - for example, how can Santa be in all these places in one night?

Mr. MONE: Well, he is not in all places at once obviously. But he does have quite a few spots to visit as you say. Say if you guess that he visits 200 million homes, which would cover about 300 million kids, that's a lot of traveling to do. And as a result, he has help. I mean, there's no way that one person could visit all those places in a single night. He does have obviously very advanced means of traveling but even if he say time-traveled, then every time he spent 30 seconds in a given home, he traveled back 30 seconds in time and landed in the next one, that would still be a lot of time for him. It would total up to about 190 years. And he would have to experience that time himself.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MONE: He is living through it even if�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MONE: �even if for us only a single night passes.

FLATOW: So, there's all kinds of time-travel and stuff going on here. So, high energy physics explanations for these things.

Mr. MONE: Absolutely, absolutely. He also doesn't do it entirely himself because as I said, you know, 190 years for a single person is a pretty long time. You think he would get bored and maybe lie down at some point and take a nap on somebody's couch.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MONE: And then wake up there in the morning and, you know, the poor little kids would come down and wonder what's going on. And the parents would wonder why a strange man is lying on their couch. But he uses a few different techniques. Santa himself uses - he has a warp-drive-powered sleigh.

FLATOW: Of course.

Mr. MONE: Of course, you know, naturally.

FLATOW: Sure.

Mr. MONE: But he has a number of lieutenants, between two and three hundred, and they travel from house to house via wormhole�

FLATOW: Aha.

Mr. MONE: �which is obvious when you think about it.

FLATOW: Of course.

Mr. MONE: And these wormholes that are shortcuts, you know, through space and time. Astrophysicists, when they think about them, usually think about them as shortcuts between one point in the universe and another.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MONE: But Santa has, you know, thankfully figured it out to a point where he can go from one house to another.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MONE: Now a wormhole consists of, you know, an entrance mouth and a tunnel and then an exit mouth. And typically, Santa comes through the living room window and exits through the fireplace.

FLATOW: So, what if you don't have a chimney? What if you don't have a fireplace, how does he exit through that?

Mr. MONE: Right, well then they just use two windows.

FLATOW: Two wormholes.

Mr. MONE: Which is why you have so many reports of kids coming out in the morning and saying, you know, I saw Santa jumping through the window last night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You know, I never thought of it that way.

Mr. MONE: Right.

FLATOW: When he eats all these milk and cookies and everything that, you know, people leave him to eat on Christmas Eve, how does he stay, not 400 pounds, he's only 350 or something like that?

Mr. MONE: That's a great question and actually in recent years he's trimmed his wait more significantly because of the obesity epidemic. You know, Santa likes to have a positive image and he wants to have positive influence on children. He wants to encourage giving and charity and love and spending time with your family. And he wouldn't want to suggest that it's okay to be 350 - 400 pounds when you grow up, right.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MONE: So, he has slimmed down a bit. But at the same time he does subsist almost entirely on a diet of milk and cookies and eggnog. And this can be difficult for anyone to, you know, maintain a slim figure eating and drinking like this. So�

FLATOW: I know, I've tried it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MONE: You know, but he has a pretty intense regimen involving gene therapy and a few other things that essentially can, you know, turn his body into a kind of fat-burning machine. So�

FLATOW: Oh, I haven't seen that one on TV yet but I'm sure if I look long enough I'll see the ad for that one. How�

Mr. MONE: Right.

FLATOW: How does he know if we have been good, naughty or nice? I mean�

Mr. MONE: Well, I mean, you know, flying robots. He has a large number of surveillance robots at his disposal, both overhead, you know, aerial larger machines that are scowering and flying over cities and�

FLATOW: Hmm.

Mr. MONE: �and towns and so they're looking in, you know, schoolyards to see if kids are fighting or playgrounds or places like that. But then he also has smaller unmanned aerial vehicles, they're sometimes called micro-aerial vehicles. And these can fly, you know, inside spaces as well, you know, down alleyways and cities or in apartment hallways. And�

FLATOW: Hmm, yeah.

Mr. MONE: But they're very important, right, because, you know, kids misbehave in lots of places not just school yards and things like that.

FLATOW: Well, you know, if he really gets high tech, maybe every Christmas he could take one of those ornaments off the tree and stick one of his own on that has like a little camera on it to watch the kids.

Mr. MONE: You know, that's a great point and he does do a little bit of that. Santa and Mrs. Claus have been involved in the ornament business for a very, very long time. And they've been implanting listening devices and other technology in them. You know, a lot of times the angel at the top of a tree will be, you know - one of the reasons it's an angel is that they're in the two eyes there are small stereo cameras. So, you get a 3D video image of what's going on around the tree because, you know, a lot of a bad behavior is going to happen right before Christmas, you know, in those last few weeks of the holidays here. And so, that's when he's really turned up his surveillance.

Now, obviously one of the big questions is he's got all this data coming and all this video, you know, how many elves you're going to have up there sorting through the stuff? He can't have one elf per child, right? Because then you've got 300 million elves and that's a lot of elves up there at the North Pole.

So, you know, and many of got scenarios depicted, you know, say the movie �Fred Claus,� the recent one with Paul Giamatti and Vince Vaughn. Santa looks over a kind of a giant snowball or crystal ball kind of device where - and he had scenes of individual kids. Well, Santa himself couldn't do that, right? Because there are just too many kids.

So, he has what's called video analytic software that kind of automatically combs through these video clips searching for certain behaviors. Now, in the real world, we have, you know, I shouldn't say the real world - in our world.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MONE: We do have similar technologies, you know, there are security companies that are working on this sort of stuff where you'll have, you know, a digital camera in a school, say, and it will be able to pick out someone jumping over a fencing coming in. It will be able to see that that's an unusual action, you know, and pick that out and flag it and send it to a security guard�

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MONE: �or a school principal on their smartphone.

FLATOW: Or facial recognition software or like that to know...

Mr. MONE: Right, absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. MONE: You know - and so, with the help of all these stuff, the elves don't have to then to look through every single minute of video, right?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. MONE: They only get, kind of, the important stuff and they can�

FLATOW: Interesting.

Mr. MONE: �send it along to Santa.

FLATOW; Now I know, you know, the North Pole where Santa's workshop is where he lives. We've heard about global warming. The ice is melting. It's shrinking. How is Santa coping with global warming?

Mr. MONE: It's a big threat, you know, because it's very important that he's up there both for, you know, the - he needs to be remote. He needs to be, kind of, removed from the rest of our world, so he doesn't - people don't interfere with his operations and start knocking on the door and asking for autographs and things like that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Mr. MONE: And also, the North Pole is an important environment for him because it's so cold. You know, with all this data coming in, all this surveillance data, Santa needs a pretty big server farm and those server farms hog up a ton of energy. And one of the great things about being at the North Pole is that you can just, kind of, throw open the windows to cool them down because that's what eats up most of the energy is keeping them cool.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MONE: Now, obviously, he is very worried about, you know, that area of the world melting because his labs and his workshops are all underground. And as this ice melts, they're starting to be exposed and then, he's also just worried about the health of the planet in general. So he does, actually, run the entire thing on renewable energy.

FLATOW: Ah, yes.

Mr. MONE: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah, because during the summertime he gets a lot of sunlight.

Mr. MONE: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah. Stores that up.

Mr. MONE: And then he also has - he also, you know, being near the water, he has underwater turbines and - because he doesn't want a lot of his stuff to be seen, right? If we went up there and some climatologist who's wandering around up there checking the weather and found a giant wind farm, they might get suspicious, right?

FLATOW: Right. So he's gearing up Christmas Day already for the next season? He's got to get all that stuff in tune.

Mr. MONE: Yeah, there's a lot of work. You know, I mean, Christmas Day is generally a day of rest for him, right, because...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. MONE: ...last night, even with his helpers, he's got quite a bit of work to do. You know, each Santa, there are between two and 300 assistants he has. They still spend six months roughly of their own time delivering presents in those few hours. You know, a few hours only passed for us, but for them six to nine months passed. Thankfully, they are kept awake with, you know, wakefulness drugs and mood-altering stuff that kind of keeps them happy and keeps them from getting bitter and giving up. But it's still a long night, and so generally, on Christmas day, they take a little bit of rest and - yeah. And then, it's back to work before too long.

Mr. MONE: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Well, Greg, I want to thank you for explaining this to us, clearing up the mysteries that we've had about Santa. And now, you've written a book, "The Truth About Santa: Wormholes, Robots and What Really Happens on Christmas Eve." Happy holidays to you, Greg.

Mr. MONE: Thanks. Happy holidays to you. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Thanks for joining us. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right to talk about Frank Oppenheimer with my guest, K.C. Cole. Her new book is called "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens," so stay with us.

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Author: Santa Claus Relies On Robots, Gadgetry

'The Truth About Santa' by Gregory Mone i i
Courtesy of Bloomsbury USA
'The Truth About Santa' by Gregory Mone
Courtesy of Bloomsbury USA

Getting presents to all the good little boys and girls every Christmas is a monumental task for Santa Claus — and it's led some children to question how he does it.

In The Truth About Santa: Wormholes, Robots and What Really Happens on Christmas Eve, author Gregory Mone explains the elaborate systems that make it all possible.

"I think part of the reason people look at Santa and say it's all magic, is that his job does seem impossible, this notion of getting around the world and visiting all these homes in a single night," Mone, an editor at Popular Science magazine, tells NPR's Renee Montagne.

But Santa's secret, Mone says, is that he uses tools that are hundreds of years beyond what we have at our disposal.

"As a result, it does seem like magic," he says. "But it's really all science and technology."

For instance, Santa's red suit: It's designed for the extreme conditions he encounters while traveling at warp speed and bending space and time. And, Mone says, "Santa's suit is laden with what are called metamaterials, which have the effect of bending light around a person so that they turn invisible" — which can come in handy if there are curious children peeking during his Christmas deliveries.

Santa's reading glasses, which contribute to his quaint image, are actually equipped with what's called a "heads-up display." When Santa looks through the lenses, he sees a range of information about the residents of the house he's visiting, the presents to leave, directions to the next house and more.

He also has a special device to ensure he doesn't double up on presents under the tree.

"Santa knows what we want, but he doesn't really know what presents to leave for a given kid until he gets to the house and looks under the tree," Mone says.

But Santa doesn't have time to unwrap and rewrap all the presents. So he uses a terahertz wave radiation scanner to see through the wrapping and make out the shape inside, indicating which toys are already under the tree. That way, he can leave a different one.

The latest research in the social sciences has also had an effect on Santa's operations. Mrs. Claus, who's particularly fond of the works of Harvard University child psychiatrist Robert Coles, convinced Santa that positive reinforcement would be more powerful in altering the behavior of "naughty" children.

Because of this, Santa no longer leaves coal in their stockings.

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