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Why Rudolph Should Have Never Joined Santa’s Reindeer

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose, and if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows. Late one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say, “Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” Rudolph declined, noting that when flying around in foggy conditions, a bright red light for a nose wouldn’t do a thing.

We’ve all been in Santa’s position that fateful Christmas Eve, and can probably understand his desperation. Holiday travel is as inevitable for us as it is for the jolly old elf. Occasionally, dense fog rolls in, delaying our flights. “Why don’t the planes just put a big light on the front so we can get moving?” you might ask. But when visibility drops, taking off isn’t the main problem–it’s landing. Radio signals, not excessive lighting, solve that problem.

Rudolph didn’t have a radio beam transmitter in his nose, as far as we know.

By definition, a dense cloud of water droplets that reduces visibility to less than a kilometer is considered fog. When it blankets a tarmac, flight delays result from the safety protocols we have put in place for our planes. When taking off or landing, the space between planes has to be nearly doubled to make sure no one hits each other. Think of it like driving in bad weather—you wouldn’t ride the tail of a car in “pea soup” fog conditions.

Thanks to technology, it’s easy to fly when pilots can’t see. They call it IFR—or Instrument Flight Rules. Sophisticated knobs and buttons and computers direct the soaring aluminum tube towards its destination. And those instruments are even more crucial during landing. If the pilots can’t see, the instruments on board substitute as eyes. Everything gets trickier when fog is involved.

When pilots are coming in for a landing under IFR, airports guide them onto the runway with Instrument Landing Systems, or ILSs. These systems are basically radio transmitters that send beams of different frequencies out vertically and horizontally. When a plane’s computer picks them up, it can determine its location relative to the ground by calculating the difference between these two frequencies. The airport modulates the beams to give the pilots the best approach, and the pilots (or autopilots) can land the plane like hitting a target in cross-hairs. (You can watch a nice little animation of how this system works here.)

Airports of different sizes have different ILSs. Larger airports have higher resolution systems, meaning that pilots can more or less land blindly on a runway. At smaller airports, they have a window to decide if they can make the runway or not—given the resolution they can see from their ILS—and have to turn around for another pass if it looks too dangerous.

What this all means for Rudolph the nasal abnormality is that Santa had no use for him. Without instruments to guide all aspects of his flight, Santa could neither take-off or land safely in fog. In fact, considering that Kringle would be traveling at hundreds of miles per second, he would need an absolutely state-of-the-art ILS, unlikely to fit in the snout of an arctic caribou.

Though it made all the other reindeer love him, a bright red light would make no real difference in the fog—as anyone who has tried to turn on his or her car’s high beams to shoot through the stuff knows. And in most countries, the use of so called “fog lights” is entirely cosmetic, and there is no legal requirement to own them. So, a bright light in a dense Christmas Eve fog would have likely reduced Santa’s visibility even more, making the jolly man that much more reliant on airline instrumentation.

If we must keep around the fable of the little reindeer who found his place at the front of a flying sleigh, I propose a change to the song: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had an Instrument Landing System Category III B…”

More Santa Science: When You Decide To Dispel The Santa Claus Myth, Make It A Teachable Moment
Image Credit: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by JillWillRun

Kyle Hill About the Author: Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Uncle.Al 1:51 pm 12/23/2013

    Perhaps Rudolph had tabanid fly nasopharyngeal myiasis, or
    Parasitology Today, 2(12) 334 (1986)

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  2. 2. Giulio 12:39 am 12/24/2013

    Of course, Rudolph is a fictional character in a fictional land doing fictional things and certainly has no need for the laws of physics of any kind, as is apparent since he can FLYYYY!!!

    I have a better title and body for this article that does not necessitate the disillusionment of children of a beloved fictional character. How about “Why people shouldn’t use HIGH BEAMS in foggy weather”! Now you can have the same story minus the beating up on Christmas.

    Merry Christmas to you too!

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  3. 3. dth314 6:59 am 12/24/2013

    Ok,this is a science site but…
    To even talk about Santa and Rudolf requires suspension of the normal laws of physics. So I just suspend my disbelief and enjoy the show every year. Happy…Merry…Good and all that.

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  4. 4. Lord_Kinbote 5:07 pm 12/24/2013

    Wrong, wrong, and wrong, Albert! Rudolph should not have joined because the rest of the Reindeer were bigoted bullies, Santa wasn’t much better until his situation got desperate.

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  5. 5. mneme 11:57 pm 12/24/2013

    Clearly, as Santa can travel at amazing speeds and accurately visit every house in his list, he already has sophisticated magical navigation, and didn’t need Rudolf for that regardless of weather conditions. Instead, presumably Rudolf’s nose was useful so that Santa could guide Rudolf and the other reindeer would know which way to go–”just follow the glowing nose”.

    Kinbote isn’t wrong that the other reindeer were bullies, but Rudolf’s story is better as a guide to the reindeer among us than the Rudolfs–not to persecute the different ones, as different isn’t worse, just different.

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  6. 6. GreenMind 2:03 pm 12/27/2013

    I think the operative phrase here is that Rudolf “had a very shiny nose.” Sure, if you saw it, you would even say it glows, but that was not the operative feature to Santa. Clearly his nose was acting as a reflective beacon by reflecting navigational wavelengths like radar very brightly. It acts like any ordinary road sign, reflecting visible light back where it came from, thereby glowing very brightly when headlights shine on it, even from far away. Since Rudolf’s nose was reflective to radar, aircraft would be able to spot him from far away, even in fog, and avoid collisions with him. So that’s why Santa wanted him to guide his sleigh, so that aircraft would steer clear if him, when he couldn’t see clearly enough to avoid them.

    Some people might think that Rudolf’s nose included GPS, but there is no reason to think that just because his nose is shiny, or even glowing, that he would have GPS, no matter how useful it would be on a foggy night. That would be overthinking it, there is a difference between enough overthinking and too much overthinking.

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  7. 7. ErnestPayne 2:15 pm 12/27/2013

    As a DC-3 pilot explained IFR to my father – I Follow Roads.

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  8. 8. bongobimbo 11:28 pm 12/28/2013

    He shouldn’t have joined because the other reindeer (and Santa, too, in that execrable cartoon movie) were bloody bigots who denounced Rudolph simply because he was DIFFERENT!

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  9. 9. hkraznodar 5:48 pm 12/30/2013

    As a teenager decades ago, I wrote a revised Christmas carol for Rudolph that involved social justice and machine guns. Santa and most of the reindeer got what they deserved and Rudolph became dictator.

    Sometimes the oppressed are just as bad as the oppressors when the scales tip the other way.

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  10. 10. bulloj 1:08 pm 12/10/2014

    I’ll grant that it’s safer not to fly in poor winter weather, but Santa doesn’t strike me as a cautious fellow. Given that he is going to attempt rooftop landings in rain, sleet, snow or hail, Rudolph’s red nose is probably not a bad choice, at least compared to other colors:

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