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Why The Science Of Santa Matters

I recently recorded an episode of the No Parking podcast with Corinne Iozzio, Editor-in-Chief of Popular Science, called “How Santa Tech Really Works.” A lot of people really loved it, but I was struck by a handful of messages from some fine people who were…less than enthused. Some people feel really strongly that Santa is magical — or at least appears to be — and we should not be having a serious discussion about his supply chain.

I disagree.

As science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The problem with Santa is that his technology may have seemed sufficiently advanced at one time, but it now appears dated. Flying reindeer and sleighs? Pure kitsch, and — dare I say — less than magical. If the legend of Santa Claus is to survive and even thrive in the future, Santa’s magic needs to modernize.

This is the crux of what I call the Santa Problem. Whatever your faith, chances are you’ve got a Santa Problem too. It’s the problem of not having a good answer when kids start asking the big questions.

As the parent of a 2 year old, I’m dreading the day I have to start answering the big questions. I can already see what’s coming. When a plane approaches, she giggles and waves Hello, airplane! A moment passes, and then ROOAAAHHHOOAAR it answers, passing far over her little head and wide eyes and screams of delight. Bye bye aeeeroooplane she calls out forlornly, as it disappears in the distance. How will she react to finding out airplanes aren’t in fact living things? Pretty well, I hope. She’s already been on a big plane. I think a few visits to the cockpit in the next year should sort her out.

The magic of planes, of course, doesn’t evaporate when a kid learns the truth. It begins, because the magic of planes is that we made them. We didn’t always know how, but we do now, and that opens up a world of possibilities for what we might build in the future. We’ve got great answers for planes and rockets and ships and medicine, but we don’t have one for Santa.

Kids are smart. They’re getting better at using technology, and they have access to more information than ever before. If parents don’t break it to them, they’re going to find out anyway. If the logic of Santa’s supply chain crumbles with even a cursory Google Search, then whatever power Santa’s mythology had at one time is gone.

Sooner or later, that makes for some very disappointed children. But what if, instead of crushing their fantasies and handing down the cycle of parental deceit, we made Santa magical again? What if the answer to questions about Santa’s supply chain isn’t parental perspiration, but inspiration?

That’s why the question of how Santa delivers so many gifts in such a short span of time is so important. That kids will grow up and stop believing in Santa is inevitable. What they learn while holding that belief is not.

If Santa were a startup, called…say…Santa Inc., of course its CEO would use every technology available to get the job done. Drone swarms. Robots. Artificial intelligence. Autonomous vehicles. Electromagnetic pulse generators. Optical distortion fields. Active camouflage. Tele-operation. Remote guidance.

That’s the reality of what Santa, Inc. — launched today — would need, all of which is within our reach in the same way that powered flight was 100 years ago. We’ve come a long way since the Wright brothers, and we have a long way to go from where we are today.

That’s why, when my daughter inevitably asks me how Santa delivers hundreds of millions of presents in just a few hours, my answer isn’t going to be “Elven magic.” It’s going to be the magic of how technology helps Santa do what everyone thinks is impossible, and that someday she can, too, if only she figures out a way to use it in a way no one else has.

Because the real magic is human ingenuity. That’s the power of mythology: it inspires us to do things we didn’t believe we could do, and to be the best human beings we can be.

That’s a Santa story I can get behind.

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