22 Dec 2006
Scientists used to have no problem disproving the existence of Santa. Their reasoning went something like this:
If the universe is all there is, then Santa Claus is subject to the laws of nature - such as the laws of gravity, energy, entropy, motion, etc.
Being constrained by these laws, he could not possibly do the things he is given credit for - like checking up on everyone, listening to all our requests, visiting millions of households, and delivering tons of presents all in one night.
He would have to break physical laws by achieving incredible supersonic speeds with instant accelerations and decelerations. He would have to expend so much energy in such a small time at such prodigious rates struggling through our thick atmosphere that he could never survive even the first house.
So went some of the patronizing reasoning made by the unbelievers back when science claimed to know it all. They let the "ignorant masses" believe in Santa because it posed no great harm. Karl Marx's younger brother, Onjar, summed up the naturalists' nonSantistic philosophy when he referred to Santa as a "novocain for the people."
However, the last decades have changed dramatically how we view the universe and it has become far less difficult to believe in the "stories" surrounding this man and the possibility that he really may exist.
But first we need a small discussion on space and time...
For millennia, people have been aware of the fact that we live in a three-dimensional spatial world (often referred to as length, height, and width) with one dimension of time (a "straight line" of time with a past, present, and future). To most scientists, that is all that ever existed.
But in the early part of the 20th century there was a great discovery. Through the works of Edwin Hubble and Albert Einstein, it was determined that the universe is expanding. If it is expanding, it must have had a beginning! - an universe-shattering idea at the time. This was a great milestone in scientific thinking and had far-reaching implications, both philosophically and theologically.
One conclusion was that there is more to space than we see. There must be another dimension of space, incomprehensible and unseen, into which we are expanding.
To add to this, recently Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose took Einstein's theories a little further, concluding that time itself was created at the Beginning, as well. This implies at least another dimension of time outside our own!
To make this all even more mysterious, the last decade has given us the best theory of the birth and life of the universe - the string theory. If it turns out to be true, this beautiful theory requires at least ten(!) dimensions of space to make it work.
Immediate point: There are at least ten dimensions of space and two dimensions of time in "existence." And with this the possibility of the existence of Santa is now not so far-fetched. How?
First, I must use an analogy to help you imagine what extra dimensions might be like. It's thinking cap time!
Suppose there was a flat person (two-dimensional, with height and width only but no depth, like TV news anchors) living on a flat, 2-dimensional surface. An example might be a stick man drawn on the newspaper you're reading now. Imagine he can travel up or down, to the left or right, but not in front of or behind his newspaper "universe." In fact, he is not even aware of space in front of or behind the paper. The newspaper is all there is for him.
You, however, living with three dimensions of space - just one more than he has! - can do wondrous things. You can observe this "flatman," even come right up to him. But he is totally unaware of you - unless you choose to "enter" his newspaper universe.
Imagine that you could do this by putting your finger through the paper (into his realm of sensation). And you could immediately "disappear" just by taking your finger back, leaving his flat world. You still exist, you just cannot be seen. You are with him, yet invisible to him. You can watch him constantly without ever his being aware of you.
Moreover, if you also had another dimension of time, you could do things "simultaneously." For example, you could perfectly converse with more than one "flatperson" at a time. You could also spend as long as you wanted observing a single moment of time in this flatland, like examining a single frame of movie film. For that entire time the flat people would be unaware of you observing them.
With just one extra dimension of time and space, you can do things which, to flat people, seem incredible and miraculous.
Well, science tells us that there really are extra dimensions "out there." Now the "myths" about Santa that seemed so silly are plausible. Here are some examples...
Let's start with where he lives. Legends have it that he lives at the North Pole. But the naysayers will say that we've never seen this House, therefore it doesn't exist. Maybe, however, to our limited 3D existence, the North Pole is the nearest we can get to it! Maybe the house is just north of the North Pole - off limits for us, but existing in another dimension. Just as the newspaper people were right next to - yet unaware - of you, there may be a Santa House right at the North Pole, just beyond our perception.
A Santa who's been given access to other dimensions could, throughout our year, entirely at his leisure, and without being seen or heard, check on us to see if we are being naughty or nice. He could even make a List and check it twice with plenty of time to keep those elves in line!
With special access to extra realms of space and time, Santa could simultaneously visit as many malls as he wants, listening to the pleas of thousands of children everywhere, all day.
Chimneys may be our best, albeit naive, explanation of how Mr. Claus enters and leaves homes without being seen. But he doesn't need any opening at all; he could just enter into our dimensions, leave the presents, then exit back.
This Santa person could visit not only all American and European homes in one single night, but could visit all homes on all the Earth! Although this would be impossible in our spacio-temporal prison, this is a no-sweat effort on his part.
And remember, since his time is not ours, he may be spending an equivalent of "years" of his time doing all this. This would cause him to get hungry and would explain how he could eat hundreds of thousands of cookies and drink oceans of milk in "just one night."
Although science is unable to prove his existence, new scientific discoveries have made it much more easy to believe in him and his seemingly miraculous nature.
Ironically, thanks in part to science, the leap of faith it once took to believe in Santa has been reduced to a step.
12 Dec 2006
The winter skies are finally making their evening encore performances after their summer dormancy. And perhaps there is no constellation more recognizable among the lot than the Great Hunter, Orion.
Today we'll look at that part of the sky through our poetic, myth-loving spectacles. When we get together next time we'll analyze the great stars and nebulae through our goggles of science.
Orion is by far one of the most readily identifiable plots of the winter heavens, rising now in the eastern skies in the early evening. Its great quadrangle of stars, Orion's body, bisected by the bright triad of stars, his belt, is a story waiting to happen. And all over the globe there is no shortage of sagas.
The traditional western stories from the Greeks involve, of course, Orion the Hunter. And although there is just one hero of the constellation there are many stories that got him there.
Orion, by all accounts, was one big, handsome guy. His birth certificate shows that he is the son of Neptune and the nymph Euryale. At least that's how one of the stories of his genesis goes. And his foremost skill, the one he is immortalized for and the one that could get him in trouble, was hunting.
On one of his violent exploits he found himself on a stopover in Crete where he met Diana, the goddess of the Moon, who herself was a gung-ho hunter.
But, Apollo, the brother of Diana, knew the reputation of Orion as a womanizer and was not about to let his sister become Orion's latest conquest.
So the sly Apollo passed the word to Mother Earth that Orion had been bragging about being able to put down any animal on Earth.
This didn't sit well with Mom. In one version of his demise she produces a mighty scorpion, Scorpius, who does Orion in.
As per the dismal Diana's request, the gods allowed her friend to be immortalized in the heavens. With his dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, by his side, he stands there on the great river Eridanus. And to keep him from dropping off in boredom, he is placed face to face with the Great Bull, Taurus. When he is finally going to get around to slaying the Bull is anyone's guess.
For the record, Scorpius got a place in the sky as well, opposite Orion, as a warning to future Orions not to get too cocky.
But the stories don't end with the Greeks. Let's see what others have to say about that piece of cosmic real estate.
Another great culture, the Egyptians, placed Osiris there. He was the God of Light to the ancient Nile-dwellers. His naughty brother, Set, the God of Darkness, tricked Osiris into getting into a coffin-like box. He should have seen it coming. Alas! Set nailed the box shut and Osiris sufficated, shuffling off his immortal coil.
Even though Isis, his wife, found out about it, it was too late. Before anyone could help, Set cut Osiris into fourteen pieces and scattered them all about.
Isis gathered all the pieces together in a story the details of which are too disturbing even for Cold Case Files. Suffice it to say that Osiris' reconstructed remains rose up into the heavens.
Julius Staal's The New Patterns in the Sky gives us a multicultural tour of other "Orions" throughout the world.
In Peru, the Chimu Indians see the central star of Orion's Belt as a criminal, held there on either side by stars called Pata. The four stars that make up Orion's body are vultures waiting to consume said bad man. It was a starry reminder not to misbehave.
The Bororo Indians of Brazil fear and revere the terrifying cayman, a crocodile-like critter and they honor the leviathan in their skies. Its body is our Orion, the tail extending way north to Auriga and the head down into Lepus. It is a magnificently big constellation by any standards.
It doesn't stop there. Orion, being in that particular part of the starry dome above, can be seen by people in both hemispheres. The Hindus, the Chinese, the Dayak of Borneo, peoples of the Marshall Islands, the Maori of New Zealand all have myths centered on the great hourglass.
Moreover, Greek and Roman poets have honored it, and it is mentioned in the Bible, as well.
A fun exercise for school - public, private, or homeschool - is to assign the students the task of thinking up their own myth involving those seven great stars. It gives the kids a chance to use their imaginations and to write and draw, arts we are quickly losing.
Next time: The science behind what is going on up there, and why we are happy to see it all from a great distance.