In the interest of science, it's time to reveal the truth about Santa

24th December 2010 at 00:00
His wormholes, nanorobots and printed liver

In his Ingenious Britain report earlier this year, Sir James Dyson argued that, for the sake of the economy, the UK must make a serious, sustained effort to stimulate British children's interest in science, technology, engineering and maths. Dyson proposes a number of ways to do so, but he completely ignores one potential source of inspiration: Santa Claus.

Normally, Santa's economic value is associated with spending - Father Christmas is considered to be the patron saint of shopping. But if Dyson is right, and a renewed focus on nurturing and expanding the next generation of scientists, engineers, and designers is one of the keys to long-term economic stability and growth, Santa could be crucial. It is easy to convey the incredible potential of science and engineering through the story of Santa. To do so, though, we need to change the conversation. We need to stop the lies and tell kids the truth about Santa.

Let's start with the reindeer. If a starry-eyed nine-year-old asks you whether Santa's reindeer really fly, be honest. Tell them it is absolutely impossible for furry four-legged wingless creatures to soar through the skies. Particularly when they're harnessed to a massive sleigh weighed down by an overweight elf.

Shock may follow, perhaps even tears. You will experience an urge to comfort or soothe, but you must remain strong because this will be an extremely valuable opportunity - a truly teachable moment. The next step is choosing the lesson to impart. I would advise against dwelling on the reindeer problem; perhaps a few minutes devoted to a discussion of lift, drag and the basic science of aerodynamics, but no more. Science should not merely be used as a negative force, something we employ to quash fantastic ideas. If we want science to inspire, it should also be used in the service of grand concepts.

So, skip the aerodynamics. Explain that the reindeer are merely a public relations ploy and that Santa actually uses two modes of transportation, both of which rely on the manipulation of space-time. Tell the truth: Father Christmas has a vast network of wormholes that enable him to jump from one home to the next in little or less time, and when he feels like taking the night air he sits behind the touch-screen controls of a warp-drive powered sleigh that does London to Hong Kong in 30 seconds.

Granted, there is some very advanced physics involved here and it won't be as easy to teach as lift and drag. But there are some wonderful books on these subjects, plenty of educational websites and, if all else fails, you could always watch the 1997 film Contact, with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, for a basic primer on extra-dimensional travel. The point you want to drive home, though, whether you end up studying texts or watching DVDs, is that Santa's modes of transportation are rooted in real science.

In his report, Dyson notes that technology education is "struggling to shake off a dreary image" and that kids "rise to the challenge of mastering something difficult and satisfying". By focusing on Santa, you will be showing kids that science might start out as inclined planes and falling apples, but if they stick with it long enough and pursue it with enough passion they will eventually graduate to some of the wildest topics possible. Instead of coldly dashing the child's dreams, you might be sparking new ones and creating future physicists.

Of course, a nation of physicists alone would not do - the GDP would hardly climb if everyone meandered about pondering the cosmos all day. Thankfully, though, Santa's operation is wonderfully varied. There are opportunities to spark an interest in engineering, maths, medicine and more.

Consider another common question: How does Santa know if I've been bad or good? Normally we attribute this to some sort of magical clairvoyance. In the 2008 movie Fred Claus, Santa watches everyone on the spherical screen of a giant snowy dome.

The reality, of course, is that he relies on miniature flying robots that capture high- definition audio and video. He gathers intelligence from surveillance equipment embedded in tree ornaments and software that enables him to monitor our internet and mobile communications.

Are you hoping for a doctor in the family? Direct the conversation toward Santa's supposed immortality. First, tell your child that immortality is impossible. Life extension, however, is another matter and, as most educated Christmas historians know, Santa has remained healthy all these years, despite a diet of milk and cookies, because he has his organs replaced on a regular basis.

When his liver function deteriorates, he has a new liver printed up at the North Pole. The operation is then performed by autonomous robotic surgeons - all that blood would be too much for Mrs Claus.

The beauty is that if your junior inquisitor expresses any doubts about the reality of surveillance drones, artificial organs or robotic surgeons, you won't have any trouble finding examples from the present day. Scientists are already working on printing organs on demand. Robotic surgeons have proven to be a valuable addition to operating rooms. And our governments are already watching everybody with flying robots.

Careers in medicine, tissue engineering or robotics would all be laudable, but there is far more economic potential if we focus on the more esoteric aspects of Santa: the time travel, warp drives and self-assembling toys. With these topics, there is an opportunity to spark entirely new industries in the UK. If only a few hundred British children today were to go on to pursue careers in wormhole engineering, for example, the shipping, transportation and space tourism industries would be completely transformed. And that would be ingenious.

Gregory Mone is a novelist and science writer.

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