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Rebecca Certner Headshot

The Science in Game of Thrones

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Like every other bona fide geek in the English-speaking world, the conclusion of this season's Game of Thrones has plunged me into a depression so profound that not even a hypothetical evening of debauchery with Tyrion could cheer me up. Quite simply, this HBO masterpiece, inspired by George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy series, is the greatest thing to happen to Sunday night since sliced bread. For those readers who are unfamiliar with the story, GoT matches the medieval and magical goodness of Tolkien's universe with the added perk of gratuitous nudity. Really, what more could you want?

However, if one manages to look beyond the incendiary swashbuckling and dragon hatchlings perched atop naked women, it becomes apparent that Game of Thrones is chock full of science. As this blog is a reputable forum for academic discourse, I will focus on the scholarly underbelly of GoT rather than Dany's flying reptiles. However, this is in no way a slight to the proper queen of Westeros, whose overall badassery I greatly admire.

So without further ado, I'm going to analyze the scientific merits of three fantastical elements from the show to see if there is any truth to them. (Just a disclaimer for the purists out there, keep in mind that this blog willfully ignores the supernatural undercurrent that is the backbone of this saga.)

#1: The Ecology of The Wall

Upon first beholding the icy behemoth known as the Wall, the small part of my brain that wasn't mooning over Jon Snow became skeptical that such a artifact could exist in nature. A somewhat haphazard google search regarding glacier structure soon confirmed my suspicions. 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 unnaturally cold at Castle Black, the immense pressure created by the millions of tons of ice would actually melt the base of the Wall. Fortunately for me, Wired magazine has already researched the conundrum. According to glaciologist Bob Hawley of Dartmouth College, the Wall would take on the shape of a giant glacier flowing downhill, the bottom 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 celibate criminals to patrol it. Alas, this more realistic 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

#2: The Biology Of Joffrey's Parentage

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

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

But wait a minute, how did anyone figure this out in a world without paternity tests? Turns out that Robert had some deviant behaviors of his own, namely leaving children in 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 blonde.

Obviously this situation can't even be quantified on the creepy scale. However, as a student of genetics, I see some red flags. Inbreeding is obviously detrimental to humans but hair color isn't a great litmus test. 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 know that the heredity of hair color is complex; it is not so black and white - or so 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. She and Jamie could certainly have spawned the little towhead sociopath. 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. So, from a purely genetic perspective, while Jamie could be the father, Robert could be as well. As a result...

Cersei's baby daddy: Not enough evidence... MAYBE

#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 themed marshmallow roast. It's actually an ingenious weapon, if you don't mind its tendency to explode for no reason. But could the Battle of the Blackwater be based on real-life medieval warfare? Is "pyromancer's piss" a chapter from our past? The answer is yes.

Say hello to Greek fire, the stuff of nightmares. Just like Wildfire, the recipe for Greek fire was revealed on a strictly 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 the modern day napalm. This allowed the substance to ignite quickly, burn incredibly hot, as well as be nigh impervious to water. There may also have been some potassium nitrate and calcium oxide thrown in there for dramatic detonation purposes. Now all that's left is the question of its characteristic hue. Fortunately, this is an easy fix since there are plenty of metal compounds that burn green. For instance, trimethyl borate produces a lovely emerald flame. Though the liquid itself it colorless, copper(II) chloride will greenify the stuff faster than Joffrey can skulk back to the Red Keep during battle.

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 and ad hoc hypothesis or your theory dies.