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On Science: Testing the scientific Santa Claus theory

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2009 - In two days, it will be Christmas, a special time in our house. Christmas is a celebration of family, a time of presents and cheer and hope. It was also, once upon a time when my three girls were children, the time of Santa Claus' annual visit to our house. My girls are college age now, older and wiser in the ways of the adult world, and Santa doesn't come to our house on Christmas Eve any more, except as a memory.

I miss Santa.

In honor of that feeling, so real this morning I can taste it, I am going to re-run a column I wrote 10 years ago, when I and my daughter Caitlin set out to again test the scientific theory of Santa Claus. We had already tried the previous year, with little success (I recounted these efforts in a Beacon column last Christmas season ), and this year were determined to devise a better "Santa trap":

In my column last Christmas season I recounted how we had set about trying to test the hypothesis scientifically. I wrote that we had devised two experiments, which we were going to carry out on Christmas Eve:

1. A flying reindeer detector. Two great trees loom over our house, one at each end, and Santa's sled would have to pass between them to land on our roof. As a flying reindeer detector, we stretched a thread across the roof, pulled it tight, and tied tiny bells to it. Any reindeer landing on our roof should jingle the bells, we reasoned, a sound our tape recorder -- turned on at midnight -- would detect.

Did the experiment work? Did we detect any reindeer? When we played the tape recording the next morning, we heard bells! Evidence of reindeer? Hardly. The bells jingled, off and on, all night long. It appears we had built a very good wind detector.

2. A Santa detector. The family Christmas tree stands in the corner of our living room, beside the fireplace. Under the living room rug we placed a Santa detector -- sheets of crinkly packing material, plastic bubbles that go "pop" when you press them. Any Santa moving from the fireplace to the tree would have to walk over the rug, we reasoned, his passage producing a "pop, pop" sound our tape recorder (we are a two-tape-recorder family) -- also turned on at midnight -- would detect.

Did we have any better luck? Was Santa's passing recorded on the tape? Nope. Not a sound, "pop" or otherwise, is on the tape -- not even daddy walking over the rug to turn the tape recorder on and off! It turned out the heavy rug muffled the "pop, pop" sound. In disguising our Santa trap, we had made it ineffective.

Failure has not deterred us. The problems with last year's experiments were clearly due to poor experimental design. This year, we vowed, we would do better. We have devised three tests:

1. A reindeer track detector. A sleigh pulled by reindeer ought to leave tracks. This year, nature has helped us lay a cleverly disguised reindeer detector. If Santa lands on our roof Christmas Eve, the blanket of fresh snow on our roof should record sled and reindeer tracks for all to see. The snow is not supposed to melt before Christmas. All daddy has to do is climb up on a ladder and take a photo of the roof now, and again Christmas morning. Any reindeer tracks should be captured in the second photo, while missing from the first. Simple? Not hardly. You try climbing a ladder in 5 degree weather with minus 30 wind chill! But science must be served, and the picture of a track-free pre-Christmas roof has been taken. On Christmas morning, back up I shall go, to seek the tracks of Santa's sleigh.

2. A Santa detector. We need a louder Santa detector. This suggests a fortunate opportunity. If there is one thing our house is rich with, it is furry creatures that bark loudly. Anyone that walks by our yard knows what I mean -- their passage is greeted by a joyous shout of barking as our three dogs bound along the fence saying "hello." These guys ought to be excellent Santa detectors! It is our plan to move the dogs in from the garage on Christmas Eve, and barricade them in the dining room. If Santa enters the house via the adjacent living room fireplace, the dogs will surely see him and raise the roof with their barking. No one could sleep through the racket they are capable of making. If Santa comes, they will announce it.

3. A Santa track detector. Because our living room floor is not covered in snow, Santa would not be expected to leave tracks there as he moves from fireplace to Christmas tree. However, my daughter points out, there is nothing wrong with the logic of looking for tracks -- all we have to do is provide "snow." So we have set up a third experiment, one we have not yet cleared with my wife. Late on Christmas Eve, at bedtime, we are going to blow a fine cloud of flour across the front of the fireplace. Santa's steps should be recorded on the floor. I am assured by my daughter that it will be no problem to vacuum the flour up later.

The daddy control. Any experiment is only as good as its controls. A control is something you do to eliminate the possibility that a positive result might be created by something other than the factor you are testing. It has occurred to my daughter that Santa is not the only animal that can place tracks on roofs, upset the dogs, and walk across living rooms. Her control for our experiments designed to detect Santa Claus is to stay up all night with her father on Christmas Eve, listening for the dogs. She says she wants to tie a cord from her wrist to mine. I cannot imagine why.

George B. Johnson's "On Science" column looks at scientific issues and explains them in an accessible manner. 

Johnson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Biology at Washington University, has taught biology and genetics to undergraduates for more than 30 years. Also professor of genetics at Washington University’s School of Medicine, Johnson is a student of population genetics and evolution, renowned for his pioneering studies of genetic variability. He has authored more than 50 scientific publications and seven texts.

As the founding director of The Living World, the education center at the St Louis Zoo, from 1987 to 1990, he was responsible for developing innovative high-tech exhibits and new educational programs.

Copyright George Johnson

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