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Quantum Santa Claus

12. February 2021.

Back in 2004, as an experiment in science outreach for children, I wrote a popular physics article titled "Santa Claus as a Macroscopic Quantum Phenomenon". Here is its brief history.

The article has originally been written in Serbian language, and was first published in "Mladi Fizičar" (Young Physicist), a science magazine for school pupils. At the time, in the period from 2004 to 2006, I was a member of the editorial board for the magazine (under the leadership of my colleague Duško Latas), and together with other members of the board, published a whole host of popular science articles for young audience, in issues from MF 96 (2004) to MF 103 (2006). The Quantum Santa article was one of the first, published in MF 97, 40-45 (2004). The online version can be found here, and the PDF version here.

In 2005, the article was picked up by the media company B92, and posted online. A few years later, in 2007, I was contacted by a member of the editorial board of "Politikin Zabavnik" (a national popular weekly magazine for young audience in general, issued by the major Serbian publishing company Politika), asking for my permission to republish the Santa article in their upcoming New Year issue. I was somewhat surprised that a famous magazine with such a long tradition (that I used to read as a teenager) took interest into my Santa article, but of course I gladly gave the permission for republishing. And the article indeed appeared in the New Year issue, on 28. December, Polit. Zab. 2916, 7-9 (2007). The online version of the issue can be found here, and of the article itself here (make sure to turn on the Cyrillic (Windows) text encoding to view it properly).

On the day of publication in "Politikin Zabavnik", I translated the article to English and posted it online. But I have not published the English version anywhere (to this date), instead maintaining a PDF version of the text here on my home page.

After the publication in "Politikin Zabavnik", the Quantum Santa became widely known among general public, and its popularity rose, beyond my ability to track it. Over the years, my friend and an excellent science communicator, Slobodan Bubnjević, wrote a whole series of articles based on the story, to various social media platforms. In addition to that, various people have been retelling the story in various guises and on various media platforms --- from written publications in magazines and newspapers, to oral presentations in various popular science lectures and events, to informal articles and blogs all over the Internet. This was often done even without quoting the original article, with various authors rehashing the story they heard from others, with the original source lost along the way. :-)

The story also appeared in various international online media, and as of today, a Google search on "Quantum Santa" gives various articles in The Guardian, EE Times, The Boar, Independent, Trinity College News, Dublin Live, University Times, The Irish Times, and so on. The stories are always roughly along the lines of the original article (superposition principle, measurement postulate, non-observation of Santa by the children, etc.), albeit with some creative upgrades, such as:

as well as various (and hilarious!) embellishments, such as:

and so on... The most recent articles, from 23. December 2020, attribute the quantum description of Santa to Prof. John Goold and Dr. Mark Mitchison (Trinity College Dublin), with some prior art from 2017 attributed to Dr. George Knee (University of Warwick), as well as all the way back to 2000 (before my article!!) attributed to Henry Gee (senior editor of Nature).

Needles to say, the concept of Quantum Santa became a worldwide meme over the years, and today it has a life of its own. I find that deeply satisfying, despite the whole tounge-in-cheek background. As scientists, we certainly have an ethical duty not to leave Santa's existence unexplained, don't we? After all, didn't Santa provide New Year's presents to all of us when we were young (except maybe to Richard Dawkins)?

The only issue that still bothers me to this day (given that my research revolves mostly around gravitational phenomena), is the question I posed at the end of the article --- how can one explain that Santa's sleigh can fly? Since the beginning back in 2004 and up to today, nobody has managed to come forward with a plausible explanation for this fact, and I find this deeply disturbing --- it appears to be a much more serious challenge than I originally suspected. We need to invest more effort to answer this deep question. And in the meantime, we still have some time to dream a little, right? ;-)