The Science of Game of Thrones

] Science is coming. The Game of Thrones universe is one of the most brilliantly complex and utterly FRUSTRATING fictional universes ever created. But it IS a fictional universe, and the only rule of a fictional universe is that it is SELF-consistent. It doesn’t have to agree with our science, or logic, or even our commonly agreed-upon moral code that says killing people is not a good thing. There is only one god in that universe, and his name is Gurm. But despite that, many things in Game of Thrones can be linked to the real, ACTUAL world, drawing inspiration as if through the thirsty roots of a weirwood tree. Many of these connections are interpreted by fans, but some have been verified by the bearded one himself. There are the many competing religious philosophies, the many, many, MANY similarities to real-life historical characters or the fact that they LOOK like us? But we are not going to be talking about those… Here’s where I would give you a spoilers warning, but . . . come on. You clicked on this. Spoilers are coming. Why are the seasons so crazy?

In the Game of Thrones universe winters and summers are known to last years at a time and apparently show up when they damn well please. We know that the summer/winter cycle normally averages around 5 or 6 years apiece, and as the story begins the most recent summer has stretched to nearly ten years. On Earth, seasons are caused by our axial tilt leaning one side of Earth toward or away from the sun during our annual trip around it, but George’s world isn’t so predictable. The Maesters of the Citadel are the geeks of Westeros, who are supposed to calculate when the next Polar Doom will arrive. Westeros isn’t an industrial society, but the architecture, metallurgy, and medicine we see in the Known World suggests that these guys are a fairly scientific bunch.

Many theories have attempted to explain the reason for these seasons, but most of them collapse faster than a Greyjoy’s loyalty. We know that the Westeros-ian world has a moon, and that it used to have two. Maybe their moon isn’t as large as ours so the planet’s axis, unstabilized by lunar gravity, wobbles like a broken top. But, according to astronomers, moons don’t stabilize planets, rather a moonless planet should spin more evenly than one with a moon. Then what if its orbit, instead of a nearly circular ellipse, like ours, was extremely elongated? Well that doesn’t work either. While it could cause extreme seasons, they’d still show up on a regular schedule. Even complex combinations of orbital stretches and wobbles, like Earth’s Milankovitch cycles, could be predicted by any society that knows basic algebra. Well, then maybe it’s tugged on by the gravity of a neighboring planet, or its sun has a variable output. George R.R. Martin did write his first novel about a planet falling away from its parent star. It’s most likely that the Game of Thrones planet . . . it needs a name. Planet Hodor! lives in a very strange solar system, around a pair of stars.

Last April, a group of graduate students from Johns Hopkins University published a paper showing that if the world of Game of Thrones was subject to the complex dynamics of three celestial bodies orbiting each other, predicting a planet’s seasons would be impossible. This has interesting implications for Tatooine . . ? Of course, it could also be due to magic, which is cheating. And what about that world anyway? At the amazing planetary science blog Generation Anthropocene, Miles Traer and Mike Osborne have constructed a detailed geologic history of Westeros stretching back more than 500 million years into the fictional past.

They determined that, since the North is cold enough to maintain a wall of ice, which we’ll come back to, year-round, it must be near this planet’s Arctic circle, and since the south is warm enough to be covered by deserts, which primarily exist near Earth’s 30th parallel that Planet Hodor has a radius of 4,297 miles or about 10% wider than Earth. We know that the First Men crossed into Westeros on a land bridge near Dorne, and like Africa and South America, the coastlines of Westeros and Essos seem to fit like puzzle pieces. They were probably unzipped beginning 25 million years ago by a spreading rift, like the one in the middle of our Atlantic Ocean.

And 40 million years ago, Westeros was likely covered by a huge ice sheet, which retreated as glaciers, cutting the great valleys south of Winterfell and the Riverlands between Harrenhal and The Twins. The description of the jagged Black Mountains sounds a lot like our own Rocky Mountains, which were born around 60-80 million years ago. This would also mark the birth of the Mountains of the Moon and the high Westerlands, as north and south Westeros smashed together just like the fault beneath the Himalayas. That violent uplift is what exposed all that Lannister gold from its origin deep within the crust.

That era also would have borne the Iron Islands . . . but we have a different iron to talk about. Valyrian steel was an alloy forged in the ancient empire of the Valyrians, lighter and stronger than regular steel, and whose secrets were lost during the Great Doom, when volcanoes torched Valyria, and its dragons, into charcoal. That Valyrian steel was forged with dragon fire, which is not actually a thing, but it’s almost certainly a reference to Damscus steel, an ancient steel alloy developed in India around 300 BC. Like Valyrian steel, the secrets of its forgery were lost to history forever. Speaking of dragon fire . . . what if dragons COULD exist? How COULD a living thing breathe flames? My buddy Kyle Hill came up with an interesting theory. Like the tiny bombardier beetle, dragons could secrete reactive “hypergolic” chemicals that, when mixed, react violently and shoot out of an orifice like rocket fuel. And if dragons chewed on certain rocks and metals, which I imagine are like cupcakes to them, they could coat their teeth in minerals, creating a spark with rows of deadly knife-like flint and steel.

Unfortunately, our idea of a fire-breathing flying dragon is about to come crashing back down to Earth, because physics. As Bran Stark found out the hard way, gravity seems to work in Westeros just like it does here. And that means the Mother of Dragons’ kids are grounded. The largest bird that ever lived was the giant teratorn, with a wingspan of 7 meters. Not big enough. Dragons are probably more like pterosaurs. But even the largest of those, Quetzalcoatlus, maxed out at 11 meters from wingtip to wingtip and 250 kg. But Daenarys’ dragons are bigger than that by the time they hit puberty, and dragon lore says they never stop growing.

Even with a pterosaur’s hollow bones, ability to gallop on all fours to take off and huge stretchy wings, even Hodor could figure out that the dragons don’t work. Unless, yeah . . . magic. The Wall? Won’t work. A sheer cliff of solid ice stacked 700 feet tall would melt at the bottom under its own weight and would fall apart unless it was sloped Wildfire? Works. “Greek Fire” was an ancient precursor to napalm made from petroleum, sulfur, saltpeter and was the most potent weapon of its time. Add a little trimethyl borate, and you’ve got a flaming death that’s ready for St. Patrick’s Day. Milk of poppy? Works. Our opiate drugs from morphine to vicodin to even heroin are all derived from the poppy plant. Dire Wolf? Works.

The extinct Canis dirus was the largest wolf to ever exist, covering North and South America, thousands have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits alone. Of course, the universe of Game of Thrones would live . . . or die . . . just fine whether or not it agrees with our science. But by combining the two, as Raymond Chandler said, The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous What do you think? Does bringing science into a fantasy story kill the wonder like a guest at the red wedding? Or does it help the fictional world . . . truly “exist” in our own? I think it makes the story richer than a Lannister. Let me know what you think in the comments. And remember, a Hanson always pay their debts. Subscribe, and I will pay you back with a new video every week. Valar Morcurious

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