Since it first premiered in 2011, Game of Thrones has been one of the most popular shows on modern television. This sword-and-sorcery fantasy show covers everything from magic to zombies and even dragons. All of this more wrapped up in a neat package of medieval politics and nefarious backstabbing. While it’s entertaining to watch, it doesn’t seem like it has much to do with current science and technology. How has Game of Thrones science come together to create an entertaining and believable fantasy world?
Rooted in Reality
What makes Game of Thrones such compelling television? It’s firmly rooted in reality. While we don’t have dragons and ice-zombies coming to devour us during a multi-year winter, much of the plot of the story is loosely inspired by the War of the Roses. This dynastic conflict that took place in England between 1455 and 1487.
Medical knowledge is more advanced than medieval England would have had, but the rest of the technology used in Game of Thrones is based on what would have been available during the War of the Roses.
A Crown for a King
One of the most shocking and satisfying scenes in Season 1 is when Viserys Targaryen gets what’s coming to him, and Khal Drogo gives him the crown that he was so keen to take. It’s another execution method from history, though slightly modified.
In the past, captured enemies were occasionally executed by pouring molten gold down their throat. The most famous example is the case of Emperor Valerian, the Elder of Rome. Shapur the First of Persia captured Emperor Valerian after the Battle of Edessa and executed him. Shapur reportedly used the emperor’s body as a footrest for years after his death.
Gold wouldn’t necessarily melt in a cauldron as demonstrated in the show — pure gold has a melting point of over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit — but if it were an alloy of gold and lead as was common at the time, it would melt at a much lower temperature, giving Viserys the crown he so richly deserved.
Winter Is Coming
One of the most distinct differences between the world of Westeros and our own is the fact that their seasons often last for years. At the beginning of the show, the characters are in the midst of the longest summer in recorded history, which has continued for more than 10 years. There are a few theories, based in science, that might be able to explain these extended seasons.
The first is volcanic activity. Massive volcanic explosions caused The Doom of Valyria. It is entirely possible for these events to change the climate around the globe if they’re destructive enough. The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 changed weather patterns as far away as England, creating mini-winters where temperatures dropped. In the time when the story takes place, anyone who travels to the ruins of Valyria sees clouds of ash and skies that glow red — indicators of past and current volcanic activity.
The extended seasons could also be the result of meteorite or asteroid impacts. If the planet that Westeros resides on cuts through an asteroid belt during its orbit, it could experience multiple massive meteor strikes on an unpredictable schedule that could cause these long winters and extended summers.
Now it’s important to note that these ideas are all theories — we may never know why Westeros has seasons that last for multiple years. It may only serve to move the plot forward since Winter has been coming since season one, but it’s fun to speculate about Game of Thrones science nonetheless.
The Great Beasts of Essos
While we’ve got plenty of large lizards on our planet today, we don’t have anything approaching the size and sheer ferocity of Daenerys’ dragons. Even the dinosaurs, which have been extinct for 65 million years, couldn’t fly or breath fire. How realistic are these fantastic lizards?
More realistic than you might believe, according to science. Actual science, not Game of Thrones science. To get fire, you need only three things — ignition, fuel and oxygen. Oxygen is accessible — it makes up 21 percent of our atmosphere, and since the residents of Westeros are human, it makes sense that the atmospheric makeup is similar. That leaves us fuel and ignition.
The fuel could be just about anything. Anne McCaffery’s dragons in her Pern novels chew rocks that contain phosphine, which ignites when it comes into contact with air. Methanol and ethanol, both produced naturally by bacteria, could also create the fuel for dragon fire.
That leaves the ignition source for scientists to contend with. It could be as complicated as an internal ignition source — like the electricity generated by electric eels — or as simple as a dragon scraping it’s back teeth together to create a spark. Any way you look at it, dragons are possible — you just have to combine a few creatures to make it happen.
While we may not live in Westeros or have to worry about dragons flying overhead, the incorporation of science into the world of Game of Thrones makes for a compelling hour of television every week. We have only a few months to wait until the final season brings the story to a close.