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Santa Claus and the orbital model of the atom

Written by Sherwin, published on August 28, 2011

I was recently asked on Twitter what the difference is between Santa Claus and the orbital model of the atom. It was asked in a way, that suggested there was no difference, so I thought it must be humour. But now I think it wasn’t.

It’s an important issue and dear to my heart, so I couldn’t bring myself to respond on Twitter. Too few letters and too many ideas.

The context for this conversation

By way of context, I should add that we had been tweeting about the challenges of teaching children about human sex and reproduction and, well, Santa Claus. I won’t get in to that here, except to say that I have some qualms about propagating the myth of Santa Claus. Parents have it tough so it’s not like I want to lecture parents about what they ought to do. But I have some concerns and I welcome ongoing societal discourse about this. That was when @snobiwan1 said, “In a world of secondhand knowledge, how is Santa different than the orbital model of the atom?”

I then followed up with a “Ha ha. You joke.” The response was interesting. He said, “they’re each inaccurate, but serviceable, models.” And that’s when I realized that he was getting at something that I enjoy to talk about.

Similarity and difference

I responded quickly by simply saying that there are many similarities and many differences depending on your interests and criteria. This is a total throw away statement since any two things in the universe can be seen as similar or different depending on the criteria. I uttered this tautology because I wanted to respond as honestly as I could within the constraints of Tweetsville. I should add that I’m not the fastest Tweeter.

But I also said this, because it seemed to me that he wasn’t simply saying that Santa Claus and the orbital model of the atom have similarities. He was suggesting that they are more similar than different; he was suggesting that the similarities matter more than the differences.

I could be wrong about @snobiwan’s actual intentions or ideas about this. So I should be very careful putting words in his mouth. Twitter can be very difficult, at least for me, in this regard. But I do think the idea should be considered even if this is not @snobiwan’s idea.

What are the differences between Santa Claus and the orbital model of the atom?

The differences that stand out to me are:

  1. The orbital model of the atom is generally presented as a model, and Santa Claus is generally presented either as a fact or as a myth.
  2. The orbital model of the atom is about something that is independent of human beliefs: atoms and chemical bonds are real even if humans stop existing. Santa Claus is a story about a phenomenon that is dependent on humans and human beliefs.
  3. The orbital model of the atom is an important part of the history of physics and chemistry. Santa Claus does not play an important role historically in any part of the scientific project.
  4. The orbital model of the atom is not part of a seasonal mythology that has enmeshed itself economically and spiritually in our society. Santa Claus is an integral part of just such a phenomenon.
  5. It is somewhat common, and somewhat easy, for adults and children to substantively misunderstand the orbital model. But it’s less common, and more difficult, to get the Santa Claus story substantively wrong.

These are the differences that jump out at me. There are infinitely more, if we include such details as Santa wears red and the orbital model doesn’t, or that Santa was rebranded by Coke and has pagan roots or what have you.

But there are important similarities too, and perhaps @snobiwan was trying to focus on the similarities, not to the exclusion of the differences, but just to enjoy the similarities.

The similarities between Santa Claus and the orbital model of the atom

They are both, strictly speaking, false. This is a pretty cool similarity. Electrons don’t really have orbits or discrete paths, they have probability clouds. Of course, ‘probability cloud’ is also a term that requires a cautious application. This is the challenge with trying to talk about atoms when you don’t do the mathematical modelling. But Bohr, and others did everyone a great service when they developed the orbital model and it still functions in many contexts and has a place in modern chemistry, even acknowledging the ways in which it lacks precision and accuracy and when it’s misused it can lead to bad inferences.

The Santa Claus story is also false, and yet can be used to understand the cultural phenomenon of Christmas and mass consumption and modern advertising. You can’t really understand the modern Canadian child without knowing the Santa Claus story. Hmmm, I think I’m talking myself out of the importance of the similarities.

Oh wait, the similarity that @snobiwan was getting at, is that they are both second hand stories. I guess this is true for folks that are ignorant about atoms, in the same sense that it’s true for folks (children) that are ignorant about Santa Claus. So kids trust parents on the story about Santa Claus in a way that is kind of similar to the way that many folks trust chemists about stories about atoms.

Since humans are social and since the sum of human knowledge depends on our social nature, we are constantly having to rely on complex webs of, well, second hand stories, about what is and isn’t so. Santa Claus is a story. And the Bohr model can be seen as a story too I guess.

I’ll conclude by saying that I think the terms ‘story’ and ‘second hand story’ are a little flattening of the differences for my tastes. But it is sometimes a worthwhile exercise to entertain these ideas!

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Archived comments

  1. Sherwin says:

    Re: metaphors, Jan Zwicky wrote a book to that affect. And I also said this independently. My version was more like: “understanding the limits of metaphors is the road to enlightenment.”

    And science is definitely more enlightened than the fucking climate change denier jackasses.

    So hey climate change deniers: fuck off.

  2. Hugh says:

    Who was it that said that wisdom is knowing the limitations of metaphors?

    What is tricky for me is that I want scientifically derived knowledge to have a special character that trumps other kinds of knowledge, so I can tell climate change deniers to fuck off conclusively. But science is, as you are getting at here, a series of metaphors. It’s not as simple as “all knowledge is subjective”, but still it is metaphors.

    But science has *better* metaphors right? More reliable metaphors. So hey climate change deniers: fuck off.