Guest Post: Science in the Game of Thrones

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo via Wiki­media Commons.

Did you watch GoT last night? If not, don’t worry, the fol­lowing post will not reveal a thing, I promise. Rebecca Certner, a PhD can­di­date in Steve Vollmer’s lab, wrote it a couple weeks ago for the Marine Sci­ence Center’s grad­uate research blog. If you’re a Khaleesi fan, a Jof­frey hater, or just curious whether a giant frozen wall the likes of THE Wall is phys­i­cally fea­sible, please read on. And don’t forget to sus­pend your sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. Magic has no place in this highly sci­en­tific explo­ration of the best epic fan­tasy cur­rently on cable.


Like every other fan­tasy geek in the Western world I’ve awaited the return of HBO’s Game of Thrones with great antic­i­pa­tion and high expec­ta­tions. Thank­fully, so far, season 3 does not dis­ap­point. For those of you who are unfa­miliar with the story, it’s got all the medieval and mag­ical good­ness of Lord of the Rings with the added perk of fre­quent and unabashed nudity. Really, what more could you want?

How­ever, if you manage to look beyond the swash­buck­ling and dragon hatch­lings perched atop naked women, you will see that Game of Thrones is chock full of sci­ence. And since this blog is an edu­ca­tional and pro­fes­sional forum for aca­d­emic dis­cus­sion, I will focus on the schol­arly under­belly of GoT rather than the dragons. How­ever, this is in no way a slight to Daen­erys Tar­garyen, whose overall badassery I greatly admire.

So lets get right down to it. I’m going to talk about three fan­tas­tical ele­ments from from the show (divided into three sci­en­tific fields for your con­ve­nience) and dis­cuss their respec­tive merits.

#1: The Ecology of The Wall

One curse of being a grad stu­dent is our ten­dency to be both­ered by things that most normal human beings don’t notice. For example, it is often dif­fi­cult for me to watch sci-​​fi movies because I’m con­stantly being bom­barded with artistic choices that don’t jive with earth’s nat­ural laws.

This is me every time a movie's plot revolves around the zombie apocalypse or a viral outbreak.

This is me every time a movie’s plot revolves around the zombie apoc­a­lypse or a viral outbreak.

But I digress. My point is, when I first beheld the Wall, the small part of my brain that wasn’t mooning over Jon Snow became skep­tical that such a struc­ture could exist. Turns out I was right. The dimen­sions of the Wall simply can’t stand up to gravity, leaving the 700 foot high 300 mile long for­ti­fi­ca­tion to warp under its own weight. Even though we can safely assume that tem­per­a­tures are always below freezing at Castle Black, the immense pres­sure cre­ated by the mil­lions of tons of ice would actu­ally melt the lower parts of the Wall. According to glaciol­o­gist Bob Hawley of Dart­mouth Col­lege, the Wall would take on the shape of a glacier flowing down­hill, the base pushing out­ward as the top pushes down. In reality, the biggest problem with the Wall isn’t actu­ally its height or length, but its slope. Martin Truffer, a physi­cist from the Uni­ver­sity of Alaska, Fair­banks, esti­mates that for the Wall to be 700 feet high it must also be 28,000 feet wide. So just take away the 90 degree angle and the Wall goes from fan­tasy to reality; all that’s missing is a set of gloomy crim­i­nals to patrol it. Unfor­tu­nately, that slope also makes “climbing” the Wall little more than a chilly jaunt, basi­cally use­less against invading wildlings and white walkers.

As a result…

The Wall: MYTH

Which brings us to…

#2: The Biology of Jof­frey‘s Parentage

“We've had vicious kings, and we've had idiot kings... but I don't know if we've ever been cursed with a vicious idiot for a king.” Joffrey Baratheon: taking teenage angst to a whole other level.

We’ve had vicious kings, and we’ve had idiot kings… but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with a vicious idiot for a king.” Jof­frey Baratheon: taking teenage angst to a whole other level.

Unfor­tu­nately for everyone involved, the cre­ator of the series, George R. R. Martin, has a nasty little habit of using incest to drive major plot­lines. In fact, it seems that the only thing Martin enjoys more than lit­eral blood is fig­u­ra­tive blood­lines. From the Tar­garyen sib­ling spouses to Craster and his daugh­ters, each case is more dis­turbing than the last.

How­ever, today we are con­cerned with the Lan­nis­ters. To give you a brief overview: Cersei Lan­nister (the deviant lady pic­tured below) is mar­ried to a per­fectly unre­lated (albeit drunken and irre­spon­sible) king. Despite this arrange­ment, all three of Cersei’s chil­dren (including Jof­frey) were fathered by her twin brother (Jaime), who is employed by said king (Robert) due to his uncommon skill with a sword (pun unin­tended). To make a long story short, Robert dies com­pletely unaware of this hor­ri­fying fact and sev­eral other folks meet ghastly ends trying to prove it.

Ew. Just... Ew.

Ew. Just… Ew.

But wait a minute, how did anyone figure this out in a world without pater­nity tests? Turns out that King Robert had some deviant behav­iors of his own, namely leaving chil­dren in var­ious brothels all over the capitol. Like their father, all of these kids have dark hair. Mean­while, Cersei, Jamie, and their unnat­ural brood all sport the trade­mark Lan­nister hair color: blonde.

As a human being this whole sit­u­a­tion dis­gusts me. As a geneti­cist, I see some red flags. Inbreeding is obvi­ously bad for any species but hair color isn’t a great litmus test. Lets look at the facts. First of all, the genetics of human hair color have not been fully estab­lished, though many believe it to be under the con­trol of mul­tiple genes. So right off the bat we learn that the heredity of hair color is com­plex; it is not so black and white – or blonde and brunette – as Martin would have us believe. We do know that hair color comes from two pig­ments: pheome­lanin (blonde and red hair) and eume­lanin (black and brown hair). We also know that black/​brown hair appears to be dom­i­nant over blonde/​red hair. Ergo, blonde indi­vid­uals, like Jof­frey, must have inher­ited only blonde alleles from each of their par­ents. Cersei obvi­ously passed on her blonde genes to Jof­frey, as a blonde her­self that is all she can give. She and brother Jamie could cer­tainly have pro­duced the evil blonde sociopath that is Jof­frey. How­ever, even though Robert is a brunette, there is no proof that he is homozy­gous in the eume­lanin depart­ment! Robert could easily have a blonde allele that is masked by a dom­i­nant brunette allele. Indeed, Martin gives no descrip­tion of his par­ents. One of them might have been as blonde as a Lan­nister for all we know! Robert having only dark-​​haired bas­tards is simply not enough proof to rule out his role in Joffrey’s con­cep­tion. After all, we also have no idea what these var­ious mothers look like and they con­tributed half the genes. So, while Jamie could easily be the father, Robert could be as well.

As a result…

Cersei’s baby daddy: Not enough evi­dence… MAYBE

Moving on to…

#3: The Chem­istry of Wild­fire

Ah wild­fire. When Martin becomes bored with slashing folks to pieces he simply burns them alive. Wild­fire ignites every­thing it touches, even water, turning your opponent’s fleet into a macabre St. Patrick’s Day bar­beque. It’s actu­ally the per­fect weapon, if you don’t mind its ten­dency to explode for no reason.

Silly Stannis, Wildfire is for Targaryens.

Silly Stannis, Wild­fire is for Targaryens.

But could the Battle of the Black­water be based on real-​​life medieval war­fare? Did Martin steal this “pyromancer’s piss” from our past? The answer is yes.

Behold, Greek fire, the stuff of night­mares. Just like Wild­fire, the recipe for Greek fire was revealed on a need-​​to-​​know basis so modern pyros can merely spec­u­late on its bio­chem­ical com­po­si­tion. How­ever, most scholars agree that, at its core, Greek fire was based on petro­leum and there­fore, sim­ilar to napalm. This allowed the sub­stance to ignite quickly and spread over large areas as well as burn on water. There was also prob­ably some potas­sium nitrate and cal­cium oxide thrown in there for dra­matic det­o­na­tion purposes.

Now all that’s left is the ques­tion of the color.

It ain't easy being green...

It ain’t easy being green…

Lucky for Tyrion, this is an easy fix. There are plenty of metal com­pounds that burn green. For instance,trimethyl borate (don’t try this at home) pro­duces a lovely emerald flame. Unfor­tu­nately, the liquid itself is col­or­less. Again, this is not a problem. Copper(II) chlo­ride will greenify the stuff faster than Jof­frey can skulk back to the Red Keep during battle.

Team Halfman. This is the last meme, I promise.

Team Halfman. This is the last meme, I promise.

As a result…

Wildfire: Totally plau­sible

So there you have it. Martin’s uni­verse is equal parts fan­tasy and sci­ence because when you play the game of thrones you either create an ad hoc hypoth­esis or your theory dies.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished on the MSC Grad­uate Research Blog.