Guest Post: Science in the Game of Thrones

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
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.