Tuesday, December 05, 2006

How to tell if santa is real

As I was driving today the radio host I was listening to was talking about the results of a mall-santa survey that included questions like "how many of you have been peed on by a child?" (unfortunately that won't be the subject of this post), "how many of the children say they've been good?" etc. The question that caught my attention was this:

Q: How many of you have your beard pulled on at least once a day?
A: 90%

Why do I find this interesting? The radio hosts were talking about how kids pull santa's beard to see if their santa - in the middle of nowhere Illinois or in downtown New York City - is real.

It got me thinking about how people test whether something is real, which we have to do all the time in physics and in life. The tools we use to make these judgments develop and change over a person's life, at least they have over mine, but it's interesting to take a moment and think about what your tools are and where they've come from.

In my (personal and teaching) experience intro physics students start out kinda like babies in that they often believe things because of the "NASA effect." In other words, "I know the moon is bigger than the earth because NASA says so" or more commonly "...because the book says so." Just as many of us believed in santa because our parents told us he was real.

As I got older I started testing things myself (how hot the stove was, what happened if I didn't clean my room, what I really thought about religion, etc.), but even the methods I use to test things has changed...when I was 5 yrs old I decided whether santa was real by pulling on his beard. If I had to decide now I'd probably carry out some additional tests...check his drivers license, ask to meet his wife, give him a punch in the stomach (not to be mean, to check for a pillow), dna tests, etc. Of course I don't have to decide now; I make that decision a long time ago when I pulled on santa's beard.


  1. I see Santa as anti-religeous. Here's how i see it.

    When i was a kid, it was pretty obvious to me that Santa was a myth perpetuated by parents. My parents were quite cool about it. Gifts from "Santa" used the same wrapping paper as gifts from Mom or Dad. Other clues, such as "mistakes" in labeling were added.

    But my son actually asked me. Is Santa real? Is the Tooth Fairy real?

    This should lead to:

    Is God real? Is there life after death? Pretty soon, God is about an excuse to talk at coffee hour and eat donuts. Deep down, i suspect many church goers see it that way.

    So, are we setting up our kids to understand truth by telling them lies?

    At my astronomy club, we actually measured the distance to the Moon with parallax. We measured the apparant diameter with a photograph. Given the diameter of the moon, one can compute the height of crater rims, central spikes, and floor depths with simple geometry. Very cool.

    We also got to see a demonstration of measuring the speed of light, to within a percent or so.

  2. And yet, doing some of these experiments is either impractical or impossible. I mean, who has $2,000,000,000 for a good space telescope or cyclotron? And then there's all that study. It's much easier to let others do the hard work, and wait for them to come to consensus. While i'd like to believe in life on Mars, there's no such consensus as yet over ALH84001. Yet, there is for Evolution, so we can feel pretty confident about that one.

  3. This brings back some memories about Christmass. I was 5 years old when I reasoned out that Santa does not exist.

    I walked out on Chrismass morning and noted the appearence of extra gifts under the tree. Then the 5 year old me started to wonder about some things.

    1. Jets airplanes flew about 500 miles an hour. That was the fastest mode of travel I knew about at the time.

    2. Santa has just one night to deliver to all the kids in the world.

    3. Jets are not fast enough to do it. Therefore Santa does not exist.

    4. If Santa was really using reindeer to travel, shouldn't there be reindeer poop all over the world on Christmass day?

    This line of reasoning did not bother the 5 year old me at all. When I told my mother on Christmass morning she go so upset, it made me wonder if this 40 year old woman still believed in Santa.

  4. i always wonder to my self is santa real.......
    i found out when my cousin told me she was awake all christmas night and she heard her mam phone her uncle.he came to her house and help take the pool table her sister had wanted from her mums room and take it downstairs to make it. i asked my mum that day is santa real..? she said why do u ask..? and i told her what my cousin had said. she then told me he was not real.
    i still think he is tho cause i saw a video of him my friend has and i just not sure anymore...!!!!

  5. i am a kid my mom told me santa isnt real last year and i wish he was but thats okay... I would enjoy finding a magical plump jolly old man and being friends as you parents say all kids can dream ... So it is really discouraging I strongly suggest That when you have a child to influence that santa claus isn't real so they dont go through heartbreak . I cried and sobbed and cried some more . Thanks.

  6. I found out that Santa wasn't real the hard way. oh and I'm a kid. anyway, i was looking for a lock 4 mi diary in mi parents room in boxes and stuff like that. I opened one box and it had mi teeth, mi letters to Santa, and a clay pot i gave to 'Santa' that year. i was devastated. i went into the living room and told mi mom that she lied and she said that she only wanted me 2 have fun. i was 7. since then i pretend to believe in Santa so greedy little me can get presents. i talked to mi mom about it now since I'm 11. i said 'mom do u believe in Santa' she said that if i don't believe i wont get presents so i believe and maybe deep down there is still a light in me that still knows that he is real. Oh and by the way its CHRISTMAS EVE so to u people on the eastern hemisphere MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!!!

    winter '08