This is an article that I wrote for RTE’s Brainstorm website. The original article can be found here.
For more information on the Secret Science of Santa Claus check out information on my book “Secret Science of Santa Claus“.
In a matter of days, Santa Claus will set out on an incredible round-the-world trip to deliver presents to millions of children. Every year, his schedule gets busier, due in part to the ever-increasing world population. To help him achieve this Christmas delivery goal, Santa uses a truly unique form of transport: a flying sleigh that is guided by a troop of flying reindeers. But how does the sleigh fly? And does it fly in a sustainable way?
Before looking at the science behind Santa’s flying sleigh and flying reindeer, why did Santa Claus pick reindeer to pull the sleigh in the first place? As you already know, Santa Claus’ base of operations is located in the Arctic Circle, which contains parts of Canada, the US, Greenland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. The Arctic Circle is home to many animals such as the Arctic fox, the Arctic hare, polar bears, snowy owls, and of course reindeer.
According to the 2018 Arctic Report Card from NOAA’s Arctic Program, there are roughly two million reindeer in 23 major herds in Arctic regions. For centuries, people living in Arctic regions such as the Sami and Nenets have used reindeer to transport people and goods across vast distances. So you could say that Santa Claus is just copying an old tradition.
Nonetheless, it is puzzling that the sleigh and reindeer don’t have wings like modern aircraft. Well, aeroplanes didn’t exist when Santa Claus and his elf-scientists were creating their reindeer-based flying system in the early 18th century. The first successful flight of any aircraft with an engine took place near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 3rd 1903. The pilot that day was Orville Wright, who along with his brother Wilbur built an aircraft known as the Wright Flyer I. This means that Santa’s designs couldn’t have been influenced by the work of the Wright Brothers or any other aviation pioneers. And the sleigh doesn’t have jet engines because jet engines were only developed in the middle of the 20th century.
Of course, Santa Claus and the elf-scientists could have invented mechanical wings that could be worn by the reindeer during flight. But these would more than likely have been very awkward to wear for the reindeer. Plus the reindeer are harnessed quite close to each other and they wouldn’t have been able to fully extend their wings. Instead of wings and jet engines, Santa and the elf-scientists turned to something more astounding and sustainable. They turned to magnetic levitation.
A magnet – just like that used to keep your summer holiday souvenirs on your fridge – has two magnetic poles, a north pole and a south pole. If you’ve ever played with magnets you’ll know that unlike poles attract like poles repel.
Magnets are being used in modern transport systems such as magnetic levitation or maglev trains. Just like a traditional train, a maglev train travels along a track but, unlike a traditional train, a maglev train does not touch the track. The train essentially floats above the track because magnets on the bottom of the train push off the magnets on the track. Importantly, the magnetic lifting force counteracts the weight of the train due to the force of gravity; otherwise the train could never levitate. Typically maglev trains float about 10cm above the track.
One maglev approach is known as electrodynamic suspension (EDS) and involves the use of superconducting electromagnets. Superconductors are super by name and by nature. When these materials are cooled to very low temperatures, they have zero electrical resistance and generate a magnetic field. In an EDS maglev train, superconducting magnets are located inside the train. As the train passes over the track, the magnetic fields in the track and train repel each other leading to a levitating or floating train.
Because of the lack of friction with the track and the aerodynamic shape of maglev trains they can reach incredibly fast speeds. The fastest speed for a maglev train is 603 km per hour, which was achieved in April 2015 in Japan by JR Central’s L0 train!
One of the big problems with superconducting materials is that they need to be cooled to very low temperatures before they can start to act like a magnet. This requires the use of expensive cryogenic cooling systems where liquid helium or liquid nitrogen is used to cool the materials to freezing temperatures.
But Santa Claus doesn’t need to worry about carrying cryogenic cooling systems on his sleigh. That’s because Santa Claus and the elf-scientists have developed the “holy grail” of superconducting materials: a room-temperature superconducting material. This is a material that behaves as a superconductor at much warmer temperatures, i.e. around 20 °C.
Santa and the elves installed this material on the runners of the sleigh and in the shoes worn by the reindeer. When Santa Claus passes electricity through the superconductors they generate a magnetic field. To levitate, this magnetic field needs to push off a second magnetic field, which is the Earth’s magnetic field. Although the Earth’s magnetic field is quite weak (the magnetic field from a fridge magnet is 100 times stronger), Santa’s technology compensates for this. When the sleigh’s magnetic field is high, Santa and the sleigh can fly higher and faster. And when the strength of the sleigh’s magnetic field is decreased, the sleigh flies lower and slows down.
Just like a car needs a battery to help kick start the engine, Santa’s sleigh also carries a battery to switch on the sleigh’s magnetic field. Rather than using a lithium-based battery (which won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019), Santa and his elves have opted for an advanced recyclable sodium-based battery. Added to that, the levitating sleigh emits no greenhouse gases or toxic substances into the atmosphere, which can only be a good thing for the environment. So in effect the sleigh is carbon neutral.
The only minor issue with the whole flying process is that Santa’s reindeer emit methane in the form of reindeer flatulence (basically reindeer farts) during their round-the-world trip. But don’t worry: Santa Claus and the elf-scientists have that covered too!
In February 2019, I set out on a writing adventure. I had a plan and I hoped that I would be able to stick to it. In my apartment I scribbled some notes, random musings, and a rough timetable on my whiteboard. It was a serious undertaking – to write a book in approximately 6 months from scratch. But I was motivated, intrigued, and suitably placed to write it. The aim was to write a book “How to Build an Iron Man Suit” with the content inspired by the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and real scientific research from around the world.
The process proved to be an incredible adventure. The research part involved reading scientific papers from multiple disciplines and watching the films of the MCU on repeat. I refer to the paper reading process as “academic mining” where I searched through many thousands of papers that could link to the narrative of the book. Some papers were easy to find, some were hard to find. I must admit though that it was a joy to rematch the films once again. Given that the book is based on Tony Stark and his exoskeleton suits, I focused on the films where he had a starring role. For instance, I definitely watched Iron Man (2008) more than 20 times while writing the book. Multiple watches that certainly paid off.
I should emphasise that the book is not about building the Iron Man suit. It is really about building an Iron Person suit – a suit for everyone. I strive to highlight that the technologies within the suit are to be used for good and not for evil. And these technologies need to be developed in an ethical manner, and not in a secretive and secluded manner that mirrors the approach of Tony Stark.The books also acts as my testament to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) thus far. I use scenes from multiple films to motivate the introduction of concepts and technologies – from Iron Man (2008) to The Avengers (2012) and from Captain America: Civil War (2016) to Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).
There were plenty of occasions where I didn’t think I’d make the deadline – a deadline that I had set for myself. You see I decided to venture into the self-publishing world one more time with this new book – just like my previous books Secrets of Superhero Science and Secret Science of Santa Claus. Self-publishing can be a challenging task as you need to both write the book and arrange the appropriate support structures for the rest of the book such as an editor, illustrator, proof-readers, and layout designers.
In the end it all worked out and the book arrived from the printers on October 29th 2019, the day before my 40th birthday. The official publication date for the book is October 30th 2019 – a present to myself to mark the end of my 4th decade on the 3rd rock from the Sun. You can get further details on the book here.
Over the coming weeks I’ll write a little more about the writing process and the joys and tribulations of self-publishing.
Until then – always think super!
It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) fans following the release of Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd film in MCU superhero expanse. Jubilant highs have been intermixed with shocking lows as the remaining Avengers attempted to undo the actions from Avengers: Infinity War of the Mad Titan Thanos. There have been goodbyes for iconic characters, the appointment of new leaders, and the establishment of new teams.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve seen the film a few times (six to be precise and maybe more soon), and every time that I’ve watched Avengers: Endgame, I’ve spotted something new. So here’s the first of five quirky lessons or observations (without giving too many spoilers) from Avengers: Endgame:
1. Hawkeye Speaks Japanese
One character absent from Avengers: Infinity War was Clint Barton (Hawkeye). After his actions in violation of the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War, Barton finds himself under house arrest, just like Scott Lang in Ant-Man and the Wasp. In the opening scenes of Avengers: Endgame we see Barton with his family on his farm. We catch a glimpse of the house arrest ankle bracelet as he teaches archery to his daughter Lila. Barton seems at peace as he enjoys spending time with his family. This serenity is destroyed in a matter of moments when Barton’s family are turned to dust by the Decimation (Thanos’ finger snap from Avengers: Infinity War). Barton doesn’t take the loss of his family well and assumes a new persona – Ronin. He goes on a worldwide rampage against organised crime as he takes on criminals in countries such as Mexico and Japan. We see Ronin in action in the latter as it takes out the Yakuza in Tokyo. During a fight with one of the Yakuza leaders, Barton speaks Japanese. Should we be surprised that a spy can speak multiple languages? Probably not.
2. The Creator of Thanos is in the Film
After the Avengers fail to stop Thanos from destroying the Infinity Stones there is a time-jump of five years. It’s the year 2023 and the Avengers are trying to move on. Steve Rogers runs a support group for people who lost friends and family in the snap. One member of the group is Joe Russo, one of the directors of Avengers: Endgame. Another member of the group is Jim Starlin, the comic book artist who created Thanos in the early 1970s. Nice cameo.
3. Steve Rogers is a Terrible Cook
While Steve Rogers runs a support group for people, Natasha Romanoff has seemingly taken charge of the Avengers and their allies. We see Natasha in a conference call with Okoye, Captain Marvel, Rocket, Nebula, and War Machine. She reminds her friends that everything that happens anywhere in the universe goes through her. War Machine is the last to terminate communication, but informs her that an incident in Mexico is more than likely the doing of Clint Barton. After War Machine hangs up, Natasha starts to cry at the thought of her dear friend Barton on a rampage around the world. At that moment, Steve Rogers enters the room and says, “I would offer to cook you dinner, but you seem pretty miserable already.” Despite coming out of the ice more than 10 years before it seems that Rogers has still to learn how to cook a decent meal. Still he must be better than the Vision in Captain America: Civil War!
4. Thor, Korg and Miek play Fortnite
Thanks to the quantum technology and Pym’s particles of Scott Lang and the genius of Tony Stark, the Avengers set in motion a plan to undo the Decimation. But they need a team, so the Hulk and Rocket head to New Asgard, which is located in Tønsberg in Norway, to convince Thor to join the cause. However, Thor has not dealt well with the events of Avengers: Infinity War as he has turned to alcohol and bad eating habits to get over his failure to stop Thanos in Wakanda. In addition to enjoying a few too many beers, Thor also enjoys playing Fortnite, the online video game, with his good buddies Korg and Miek. Interesting way to process his perceived failure to stop the Mad Titan. If he’s been playing Fortnite for five years, we’ve got to assume that he’s probably not bad at it.
5. No mention of X-Men: Days of Future Past
As the Avengers prepare to test their quantum-based time travel technology, a number of characters discuss the implications and rules of time travel. James Rhodes and Scott Lang list a whole bunch of time travel films such as Hot Tub Time Machine, Terminator, Wrinkle in Time, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. However, there’s no mention of the 2014 film X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which time travel plays a key role. Of course X-Men: Days of Future Past was produced 20th Century Fox and is not associated with the MCU. But it would have been cool if they had mentioned the X-Men film in the list. On the other hand, it’s likely that the X-Men will become part of the MCU in the near future following the acquisition of 20th Century Fox by Disney.
Within the MCU there must surely be superhero films. Perhaps the adventures of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Nastasha Romanoff, and Thor have been made into films within the MCU. This was almost revealed in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. In Marvel Comics, Simon Williams (better known as Wonder Man) is a retired superhero-turned actor. The actor Nathan Fillion (of Castle fame) had been cast as Simon Williams and was supposed to appear in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 on a number of film posters, one of which was for a film entitled “Tony Stark”. Perhaps in the future we will see Wonder Man make an appearance in the MCU, either as a famous actor or as a superhero.
And that’s it, the first five quirky lessons or observations from Avengers: Endgame. Stay tuned for more!
Always think super!
It’s just over two weeks since the release of Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the impact of the film has been extraordinary. To date I’ve seen the film FIVE (5) times, and I plan to see the film a couple of more times before it leaves cinemas. Four too many times for some, but for someone like me it’s only the beginning.
I’m more than aware that some people have yet to see the film, which is now the 2nd highest grossing film of all time, so there won’t be any spoilers here from me. I just couldn’t ruin the film for anyone who is waiting for the hype to die down and the theatres to be half empty before they decide to go watch the 182 minute superhero extravaganza.
All I’ll say right now is that the film is fun, exciting, emotional, and there are scenes that will leave you speechless. Of course, like most films these days, there are some things that could have been better, but for me they are minor. To others, these issues are major. In one or two weeks I’ll write a more extensive blog on the film.
In the build-up to the release of the film, my work on superheroes was featured in a number of publications in the Netherlands. First up my work was featured in an article in New Scientist, in part promoting a talk that I gave as part of the Imagine Film Festival on April 14th. Next, my work was featured in an article written by Nick Kivits for Dutch Men’s Health magazine. I’ve got to say that was very very cool! Finally, Coen van Zwol featured my work in an article with the NRC newspaper.
It’s always great to see articles about my work reach the national press. It’s another thing to see my superhero research make an impact. Of course I cannot take credit for all of the work as I’ve had the opportunity to work with some inspiring students and researchers at TU Delft and further afield.
I promise an in-depth blog about Avengers: Endgame in the near future. But unlike other publications online, this article is spoiler free.
March 14th 2019 was a great day in the world of superheroes.
First, BingeWatch Academy: Superhero Science Episode I took place at TU Delft with the theme for the first episode being impenetrable materials. Jalila Essaïdi of BioArt Laboratories, and Max Wouters, Leyi Hsu, and Jeannet Liang of TU Delft spoke about their exploration of spider silk for impenetrable materials and for healthcare. Over the last two days I have recorded some great podcast interviews with the speakers. You’ll be able to listen to this podcast very soon!
The second great thing about March 14th 2019 was that the second trailer for Avengers: Endgame was released online. Avengers: Endgame is out in April 2019 and I for one cannot wait to see the film. As with all superhero trailers, I like to analyse the films and try to anticipate what we might see in the film. As a special bonus podcast episode of BingeWatch Academy: Superhero Science, I’ve put together my ideas on what the trailer might reveal for the upcoming film.
You can listen to the trailer on BW Science right now.
I hope you enjoy the podcast!
Later this week, I’ll be hosting the first of four interactive talks at the Aula Auditorium on the TU Delft campus. The talk series is entitled “BingeWatch Academy: Superhero Science” and it combines two things that I’ve very passionate about – superheroes and science!
In conjunction with the talk series I’ve also just started my first podcast and the first episodes are online now. The first podcast acts as an introduction to “BingeWatch Academy: Superhero Science” while the second podcast is a preview of what to expect at the first talk event, which takes place on March 14th from 19.30 – 21.00 at TU Delft.
Have a listen if you get a chance and let me know what you think. You can listen here on this website or by clicking here and listening on Castos, the hosting site. Stay tuned for details on how to get the podcast on iTunes too.
More episodes to come over the coming weeks!
Exciting superhero-themed news!
I’m delighted to announce that in collaboration with Studium Generale (SG) Delft, I am arranging a brand new series of talks at TU Delft entitled BingeWatch Academy: Superhero Science.
BingeWatch Academy: Superhero Science consists of four events that will take place at the Aula Auditorium on the TU Delft campus. The talk series combines binge-watch culture, the superhero genre, and current scientific research that is taking place at TU Delft and other research institutes around the Netherlands. Each talk series will focus on a particular superhero or superheroes that have appeared in Netflix series and consider how their powers might come to be and how these powers could benefit society.
For these talks, I’m going to be the MC and can’t wait for you see our exciting program! And for the first event in the series I’ll get a chance to talk a little bit more about my work on impenetrable materials.
Further details on BingeWatch Academy: Superhero Science are available at the SG Delft website.
And stay tuned for further announcements on the podcast series that will accompany BingeWatch Academy: Superhero Science!
It’s been a while since I blogged due to a very busy travel schedule over the last few months as well as a lot of work-related tasks that needed to get done.
Perhaps the best way to reboot the blog for 2019 is highlight an upcoming talk that I’ll be giving in Amsterdam as part of the Imagine Film Festival. Yes, on Sunday April 14th 2019, I’ll be speaking at the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam. With so many superhero films due out over the coming weeks and months, it’s an exciting time to be a superhero fan, in particular one who dreams about having superpowers. For the Imagine Film Festival I’ll be covering many superpowers, superheroes, and a whole lot more.
You can check out my interview about my talk right here. Hope to see you in Amsterdam at the Imagine Film Festival.
After a heatwave that never seemed like it would or want to end, autumn is on the way with falling leaves and torrential showers forecast. Well that’s what I’m expecting in the Netherlands in any case. The impending arrival of autumn also signals a busy few months ahead with events in the Netherlands, China, the UK, and Ireland on the horizon. Travelling the world with my superhero message.
First up is the Opening of the Academic Year (OAY) at TU Delft on Monday September 3rd. Each year, the OAY is a significant event in TU Delft’s calendar as the latest batch of undergraduate students are saluted as they set forth on the next stage of their education adventure. The theme for this year’s OAY is superheroes with the event entitled “Unchain Your Inner Superhero“. For the event I’ll be the keynote speaker during which I’ll talk about the Secrets of Superhero Science and the lessons that the new students can learn from superheroes. Thereafter, two TU Delft researchers will speak about their research and why it is so important for the superheroes and a possible superpower future. At the end of the event there’ll be a superhero-themed quiz with the audience answering the questions. Stay tuned for a blog on the event next week.
I’ve also got some very exciting news in relation to another scientific publication on superheroes. Stay tuned for the announcement over the coming weeks. And of course my open access journal “Superhero Science and Technology” will be publishing some more exciting superhero-themed papers in the autumn.
Lots of super-events and super-output ahead.
At this very moment in time, I am sitting in my hotel in Seattle about to set out and explore the city. I arrived here yesterday afternoon after a two-day roadtrip from San Francisco via the beautiful coast of the state of Oregon. In the middle of my roadtrip the latest trailer for Avengers: Infinity War was released to much fanfare and appraisal. While some contend that too much has been revealed in the trailer, most people have been invigorated with enthusiasm for the upcoming film release.
Avengers: Infinity War will pit the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and Ant-Man (I hope) against the mad titan Thanos, who is hellbent on acquiring the Infinity stones so that he may “balance the universe”. To balance the universe he intends to wipe out half of all the inhabitants of the universe, which means half of planet Earth.
The trailer reveals a lot, including the last stand of the Avengers in Wakanda. In addition there is a nod towards potential deaths in the trailer, with Iron Man and Captain America both in one-on-one combat with Thanos near the end of the trailer.
However, both Ant-Man and Hawkeye are notably missing from the trailer. I have feeling that this is intentional. If not, then they play no major part in the film, which is a shame considering they are two great characters.
Nonetheless, Avengers: Infinity War is sure to be a big hit when it is released next month. The posters and the billboards are making their appearances in the US already and the excitement over the film is climbing towards fever pitch.
I plan to write further on Infinity War over the coming weeks, so stayed tuned for further thoughts and blog posts.