Friday, December 22, 2017

Santa Claus and Schrödinger's Cat

One of the frequent arguments against the existence of Santa Claus is the question, "How could he possibly make it to every home throughout the whole world in one night?"

At last, quantum physics gives us the answer.

Many are familiar with the thought experiment known as "Schrödinger's cat," as well as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the so-called "observer effect." German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg demonstrated in 1927 that both the speed and position of an elementary particle could not be determined at the same time. Related to this was the observer effect, in which observation of a phenomenon necessarily changes that phenomenon. Based on these developments, the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum phenomena was based on probability: one could not predict the position of a particular quantum particle at a particular time; the best one could do would be to predict the probability of it being in a certain region. Prior to being measured, the particle could not be said to be in any definite position; measuring where the particle is causes a phenomenon known as "wave function collapse," causing the particle to occupy a specific position.

In response to this interpretation, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger devised his famous cat experiment in 1935. He imagined a closed and opaque box containing a cat (alive when placed in the box), a vial of gaseous poison, and a triggering mechanism which breaks open the vial when a single radioactive atom decays. The decay of an individual atom cannot be predicted--only the half-life, during which half of the atoms in a given sample will have decayed, can be known. For that reason, one cannot know exactly when the mechanism is triggered, and therefore when the gas is released, and therefore whether the cat is alive or dead. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, the cat in the box is both alive and dead simultaneously until someone opens the box to find out.

Until now, no one has thought to apply this logic to the behavior of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

Prior explanations of Santa's ability to deliver all the world's presents on one night are unconvincing. Suggestions that Christmas Eve lies very close to the winter solstice, and therefore on one of the longest nights of the year, hardly even do the question justice, particularly since in the southern hemisphere, it is actually near the summer solstice and therefore one of the shortest nights. The problem is mitigated somewhat, but hardly solved, when it is observed that the rotation of the earth allows for a full twenty-four hours to get the job done. Suggestions by E. von Däniken and G. Tsoukalos that the answers can be found by appealing to aliens merely deflect from, rather than solve, the problem.

It has been hypothesized, although without evidence, that Santa's sleigh-and-reindeer transport system travels at or near light speed, thus covering immense distances in an extremely short time. However, the infrequent witnesses to Santa's Christmas Eve activity do not generally accord with the near-instantaneous blur that such immense speeds would produce. For example, the testimony of C. C. Moore in 1823 appears to contradict such near-light-speed travel. Moore attests to watching the approach and departure of Santa's sleigh,[1] as well as giving a detailed account of Santa's mode of entry and exit into a personal abode and his activities while inside. While the "right jolly old elf" [2] appears to conduct himself in a rather "lively and quick" manner, his actions do take up enough time for Moore to examine his appearance, report his various actions, and depict how he responded to amusing stimuli.

Let's assume that the entire visit depicted by Moore lasted a total of three minutes, and that travel between homes is nearly instantaneous and therefore negligible. This only allows Santa to visit a mere 480 homes during the twenty-four hour period. Even a minute per visit allows for fewer than 1500 visits. The mathematics, combined with what witness testimony we do have, make it clear that mere velocity cannot solve the problem.

The quantum solution I propose is an entirely different approach. It hinges on the fact that Santa's route is entirely unknown, and therefore, whose house he is visiting at any particular time is unknown. It is, in fact, equally probable that Santa could be at any home on the darkened side of the earth's globe throughout Christmas Eve. Just as Schrödinger's cat is thought to be potentially both alive and dead until it is observed, Santa is potentially at all houses until he is observed. As long as no one sees him, Santa can accomplish visits to all the houses in the world during the time it would take for him to make a single visit. He does them all at once, as he is potentially at all houses at the same time. The problem of how Santa visits all the houses in one night is not solved by speed, but by simultaneity. Only when Santa is observed does his wave function collapse, and he finds himself present at only a single house.

This explains several aspects of the Santa mythos, particularly the insistence that children be sleeping, or at any rate leave the Christmas tree and the relevant area unobserved, throughout the night, often with the admonition, "or else Santa won't come." Santa can't be potentially at all houses simultaneously unless he is unobserved. It also explains why attempted observation almost always ends in failure--Santa remains unseen--because when Santa's wave function collapses and his position is actualized in one location, the chances are highly against that position being in the home of the attempted observer (1 in x, where x is the number of homes occupying the darkened side of the earth at that moment). Mr. Moore's observation in 1823, far from being typical, was actually an astonishingly fortunate occurrence (although lower population density made such a sighting far more probable then than it would be today). While rare, Moore's observations are not unique: Professor Lewis reports on a sighting of "Father Christmas" in the transdimensional land of Narnia. That region's indeterminate relationship with the observable physical universe, with fluctuating and undependable connections to certain locations in the United Kingdom, also lends credence to a quantum interpretation of the data. Santa can not only be potentially at any location in the present earth, but also potentially at any location in any possible world.

I propose that we term this proposed solution to the "all the world in one night" problem the Quantum Elf Hypothesis.

[1] Moore calls him "St. Nicholas" or "St. Nick." While Santa has been known by many names (e.g., Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Sinterklaas), Moore seems to have had him unaccountably confused with a third-century bishop who punched out Arius at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.

[2] I propose that Santa is, in fact, an elf, and that the mythological class of elves are a type of quantum beings. Moore's specimen appears unrelated to Professor Tolkien's elven race, although the proposed quantum phenomena suggest a certain affinity to Tolkien's Istari, or "wizards." Additionally, a certain T. Bombadil, described by Tolkien as being of uncertain species or origin, seems to have a tantalizingly similar psychological profile to that described by Moore.


  1. Brilliant!

    I wish I had though of this first!

    Greg Kar

  2. Many thanks Keith for a very convincing answer to a question my prodigiously clever, but irritatingly persistent, grandchildren ask me every Christmas. I am now ready to bamboozle them with the Quantum Elf hypothesis. BUT great Aunt Maud wants to know what happened to Schrödinger's cat! She thinks putting it in closed dark box with an unpredictable particle is cruel and wants to report him to the animal welfare authorities. I explained it was only a mind experiment to which she responded that screwing with a cat's mind was just as bad.