The relativity of Christmastime: Slow or fast?

Thomas Wells | Buy at Santa Claus has a massive amount of territory to cover at Christmas. Could Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity come into play?

Thomas Wells | Buy at
Santa Claus has a massive amount of territory to cover at Christmas. Could Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity come into play?

By M. Scott Morris

Daily Journal

THE NORTH POLE – The term “slow as Christmas” means more to kids than adults.

For the young, Christmas morning comes slowly, a glacier moving across the frozen north.

For older folks, the day rushes forward, a shooting star soaring across the night sky.

The relative nature of Christmastime makes scientific sense, according to Stephanie Miller, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Mississippi.

Let’s consider the issue with a 6-year-old and a 60-year-old.

Our 6-year-old has waited for Santa Claus to come 4 or 5 times in her lifetime, depending on how aware she was in the early years.

The 60-year-old has ripped open presents 58 or so times, so it’s gotten to be old hat, even if that hat has a fluffy white ball on top.

“It’s normal to focus on things that are distinctive,” Miller said. “For us, we’ve had so many Christmases that it’s not as novel. For them, it’s a very distinctive event.”

Time also zooms by for adults because we have so many different things to focus on during the holiday season.

Somebody’s got to do the shopping, wrap the presents, plan the meals, clean the house and drive the car. That’s not to mention all the time spent conferring with Santa about who’s been naughty and nice.

Kids simply have more time to focus on what treasures the Christmas tree will reveal at the appointed hour.

“We have all these interruptions that take our minds off it,” Miller said. “Kids are focused on Christmas. They don’t have to think about Christmas shopping or cooking dinner.”

To ease their devoted little minds, consider throwing a few distractions their way.

Claus physics

Or you could blow their minds with help from Josh Winter, a physics instructor from Mississippi State University.

Because of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, physicists know that time isn’t constant.

“We now understand that the faster you go, the slower time passes,” Winter said.

This isn’t just a thought experiment. The humble muon is a subatomic particle that’s created when cosmic rays hit the Earth’s atmosphere.

“The reason most people haven’t heard of a muon is they don’t last very long,” Winter said. “They last a fraction of a second.”

Scientists can detect muons as they hit the planet’s surface, and that puzzled them for a while.

“We should not be able to detect them because they don’t last long enough to make the drop,” he said. “The muons don’t live long enough. They turn into other particles. They decay into other things too quickly.”

The answer came when Einstein’s theory was applied to the problem. Time slows down for muons because they’re moving extremely fast.

“They move fast enough to make it down, and from their frame of reference, they exist only a short time,” he said.

It’s widely accepted that Santa Claus travels around the Earth to visit all the good boys and girls in one night with the help of magic.

But Winter said science should not be discounted.

“This could be how Santa Claus can make it to every house in one night,” he said. “At the right speed, time slows down. If Santa moves fast enough, then time slows down and he can make it to every house in one night, thanks to Einstein’s theory of relativity.”

Altitude can help the Jolly One, too. Imagine you’re on a merry-go-round with your favorite person in the whole wide world. You’re at the edge and your favorite person in the whole wide world is at the center.

“You make one rotation at the edge at the same time as someone at the center, but your circle is bigger, so you’ll move faster,” Winter said.

Again, the faster you go, the slower time moves. It’s a natural fact that someone on the peak of Mount Everest is moving faster than someone standing in Death Valley.

So the more vertical Santa can get, the faster he’ll go.

“And he’s going to slow time down,” Winter said.

This and that

OK, how far through the Christmastime looking glass are you willing to go? Can you handle a possibility where you buy an 8-year-old boy both a Barbie doll and a football? If so, you’ve gone multidimensional.

As Einstein once said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.

“You are there and I am here,” Winter said. “We exist in different places but at the same time.”

If time flows, then what happened five minutes ago, what’s happening now and what will happen five minutes from now already exist. Our consciousness simply moves from point A to point B to point C.

“That brings up the touchy question of free will,” Winter said.

In that view of time, what will be, WILL BE.

But if time is multidimensional, each choice creates a new twig or branch on the tree of time.

If you choose to buy the football, one set of events follows. If you buy the Barbie doll, there’s another set of events. Under the multidimensional theory, both presents are bought, though not in the same branch of time.

“The Christmas present will be both the Barbie and the football in different time lines,” Winter said.

It’s truly mind-blowing stuff here at the Yuletide season, and if you haven’t fully realized the implications, let Winter spell it out: “Until Santa makes his list, you have been both naughty and nice.”

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