Science & Technology

5 Things Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Science

It might be called "fantasy" for a reason, but it turns out that even some of the most magical elements of "Game of Thrones" — the super-popular book series that became a super-popular HBO series — has some roots in science. Even better, knowing how can teach us even more about how real-world science works. Here are five lessons you can learn about real science from the fantasy world of the Seven Kingdoms. (We'll do our best to avoid any spoilers).

1. Chemistry: Wildfire

Wildfire is such a terrifying weapon that it's no wonder that, according to Game of Thrones lore, its recipe is a closely guarded secret. It's described as a volatile green liquid that catches fire easily and burns until its fuel is exhausted. It can ignite any material and will even continue to burn while floating on water.

It turns out that there have been real-life versions of something akin to wildfire throughout history. Most mysterious is probably Greek Fire, a liquid that seventh-century Eastern Roman armies would spray on enemy ships, where it would burst into flames on contact. Though no one is sure what it was made of, rumors have included everything from sulfur and liquid petroleum to quicklime, bitumen, and burning pitch. Centuries later, the sticky, long-burning liquid weapon known as napalm hit the scene, and its horrific destruction when in the hands American forces during the Vietnam war led to its outlaw (at least for its use against civilians) in 1980.

Of course, neither of those substances are green, and both burn with a boring orange flame. But it really is possible to make a liquid that burns with a green flame that ignites whatever it touches. Last month, Youtubers Nick Uhas and Trace Dominguez made their own version of wildfire with boric acid powder, methanol, and — what else? — glowsticks. The results were pretty jaw-dropping:

2. Linguistics: Dothraki

While most characters in Game of Thrones speak English, a few cultures speak languages wholly invented for the series. The nomadic horse warriors known as the Dothraki speak one such language, which (along with the Valyrian language) George R.R. Martin made up for the few phrases he included in the book series. But for the TV show, the producers needed more than just a few lines of these foreign tongues — and that's why they turned to linguist David J. Peterson.

Languages like Dothraki and Valyrian (and Klingon, Elvish, and the "universal language" of Esperanto, for that matter) are what's known as constructed languages or "conlangs," and Peterson is an expert conlanger who's constructed languages for a number of shows on television. The brilliance of a language constructed by a professional linguist is that it uses the rules of linguistics, so understanding how Peterson constructed Dothraki or Valyrian can tell you more about how your own language works. Luckily, Peterson explained just that in a 2015 op-ed for the LA Times.

3. Engineering: The Wall

Of all of the fantasies that fill Game of Thrones, The Wall might be the most outlandish (and that's saying something). The Wall is a 700-foot (200-meter) tall, 300-mile (500-kilometer) long fortification that divides the realm of the Seven Kingdoms from the no man's land further north. Normally, to build something this tall requires a hollow steel skeleton, deep piles (aka stakes that keep it planted to the ground), and, oh yeah, an incredibly tall crane. Although there have been cultures who achieved such a feat without modern technology — the ancient Egyptians likely combined a ramp with a rope and pulley system to pile the bricks of the pyramids — no one past or present has ever done such a thing with ice. Trace Dominguez gets into the hypothetical challenges involved with building this monstrosity in the video below.

4. Neuroscience: Hodor

Hodor, a "simple-minded" servant of House Stark, was actually born with a different name, but people began calling him "Hodor" because that's the only word he can say. It's not that he can't communicate — he'll utter this word with varying emphasis — it's just that he can't actually use other words. The show eventually explains why, but there's a real-life explanation as well: If Hodor existed in the real world, he'd likely be suffering from Broca's aphasia. This condition is caused by a lesion in the language-centric region of the brain known as Broca's area, and the first patient documented with the condition could also utter only one word. His name was Louis Victor Borges, but just like Hodor, people called him by the only word he could say: "Tan."

5. Planetary Science: Winter Is Coming

Even if you're not a Game of Thrones fan, you've no doubt heard the phrase "Winter is coming." That's uttered time and time again in the earlier seasons of the show because the story is set in a world that has long, unpredictable seasons — which means that winter could come at any time and last for years. George R.R. Martin has specifically addressed his fans' desire to come up with a scientific explanation for the seasons: "I have to say, 'Nice try, guys, but you're thinking in the wrong direction.' This is a fantasy series. I am going to explain it all eventually, but it's going to be a fantasy explanation."

Fantasy explanations aside, a number of scientists have weighed in on this with some pretty persuasive scientific explanations. For example, a planet's seasons come from a tilt in its axis. The more tilted it is, the longer the seasons, which is why Uranus's 98-degree tilt gives it 42 years of winter. It's possible that the Game of Thrones planet has seasons of an unpredictable length because it has a "wobbly" axis that shifts its angle throughout its orbit. The strange seasons could also come down to a complicated Milankovitch cycle, the combination of quirks in orbit, axial tilt, and precession (the change in direction of the axis) that create their own change in weather and season.

The explanation could also just come down to climate science: Maybe the volcanoes of the Valyrian peninsula erupt every so often, filling the atmosphere with clouds of sulphuric acid that block out sunshine and create something akin to winter. While none of these explanations will ever come out in the show, they at least help us learn more about science in the real world.

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Get more GoT science in "The Science of Game of Thrones: From The Genetics of Royal Incest to The Chemistry of Death by Molten Gold — Sifting Fact from Fantasy in The Seven Kingdoms" by Helen Keen. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 1, 2019

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