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Arm Yourself for Any Game of Thrones Science Discussion Today

We the fans of Game of Thrones have to face facts: The show may in fact be fictional. But in the unlikely event that it’s not, we decided to take a look at some science-based explanations for the seemingly magical elements of Westeros, including sword forging, ice wall engineering, and dragon biology. Here’s how it all works.

One piece of magic science can't explain: where Dany got such fashionable jeans out in the middle of nowhere.
Image credit: HBO
Note: some minor spoilers for the Season 4 premiere below!

Two swords. Two very brittle swords.
Image credit: HBO

Why The Lannisters’ Forge Is Likely Screwing Up the Valyrian Steel

The premiere episode of Season 4 opens with patriarch Tywin Lannister directing a craftsman to melt down the late Ned Stark’s Valyrian steel greatsword Ice and reforge it into two new swords. In the show, we see Ice melted in a crucible and then poured directly into sword-shaped molds. It’s a striking visual (“Conan the Barbarian” used it too) but not an accurate way to make a strong steel sword, according to Canadian swordsmith and artist Jake Powning.

“If you were making a bronze sword you would do that.” Powning told us over the phone. But with steel, Valyrian or otherwise, “that’s not how you would do it.”

Casting liquid steel like that, in the open air, would make the grains of metal within the blade bigger, making for a really brittle sword. The real way to reforge Ice would be to melt it down in a closed crucible (to prevent oxygen from getting in), after which it cools into a puck-shaped ingot. The crucible bottom-shaped ingot is then forged into a bar shape, and the bar is turned into a blade the proper way: heating the metal enough to be pliable but not melted, and then hammering it into shape.

“It would just be like making a new sword, as if working from ore,” Powning says.

Powning also points out that you lose a lot of material in the forging process, so when reforging a sword you would usually want to add more material to the mix. But in the “Game of Thrones” world, this would be nigh-on impossible, since Valyrian steel is incredibly rare.

Valyrian steel is described in the books as a ripply, very strong metal. Based on the description, plus its rarity, this fantasy material has a surely not accidental real-world analogue in “Damascus steel.”

The production of true Damascus steel, first used by sword makers in the Middle East, is still something of a mystery. But experts today believe it was made from ingots of wootz steel, originally from India. Researchers have found that these special blades contain carbon nanotubes interspersed throughout softer metal, yielding a deadly combination of strength and flexibility. The ripples in the metal are thanks to a material called cementite or iron carbide, which segregates into bands thanks to the presence of other trace elements in the steel, most notably vanadium.

Iowa State University materials scientist John Verhoeven and colleagues hypothesized in an article for the Journal of The Minerals, Metals & Materials society that the unique nature of wootz ingots may be why the art of making Damascus steel is largely lost. The Indian ore that contained just the right balance of elements to produce the characteristic ripples in a forged blade may have been exhausted or inaccessible; without the critical ingredient, the practice of forging Damascus steel likely died away as well.

In “Game of Thrones,” the explanation for the lack of Valyrian steel is a little bit simpler: A lot of the knowledge about and sources of the metal disappeared when the kingdom of Valyria suffered a huge catastrophe (most likely a volcanic eruption).

You know nothing about glacial physics, Jon Snow.
Image credit: HBO
Why The Wall Must Be Held Up By Magic

The Wall that separates the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros from the wildlings and monsters of the North is a 700-foot-tall, 300-mile-wide barrier made from ice. In the show and books, magic spells (and the men of the Night’s Watch) have helped hold The Wall up against attackers for thousands of years. This makes sense, as here on boring Earth, physics alone would not be enough to support the Wall.

“Even at very cold temperatures, large ice masses deform under their own weight,” Dartmouth College engineering professor Mary Albert, an ice drilling expert, told Wired. “And over long time scales, ice flows, so it would not hold its original shape for thousands of years.”

It might be possible to counteract the flow of the ice by building the Wall as a giant slope leading up to a vertical ridge. But the degree of the slope required to stabilize a 700-foot-high vertical would require a thickness at the base of the Wall of around 28,000 feet, University of Alaska Fairbanks physicist Martin Truffer estimated. That’s a pretty tough order for any engineer, even Brandon the Builder.

WHERE ARE MY DRAG- oh wait, there's one now
Image credit: HBO
Dracarys! How Dragons Could, In Fact, Breathe Fire

As Daenerys Targaryen’s ancestors discovered, dragons are a pretty sure-fire way to conquer kingdoms; they’re like nuclear weapons brought to a sword fight. But could there be a feasible way for a living creature to breathe fire? The answer is yes: All it would require is an internal organ that produces an ignitable gas, and a way to ignite it.

One plausible explanation might be that a dragon has an organ somewhere that produces an ignitable gas. In an interview with Discover magazine, Henry Gee, a paleontologist and author of “The Science of Middle-Earth,” suggested that the organic solvent diethyl ether might do the trick – and there’s an easy way for dragons to make the gas in their bellies.

“Yeasts and other organisms produce ethanol as a waste product, and there are bacteria that excrete sulfuric acid (they’re responsible for corroding concrete),” Gee told Discover. “I could imagine a microbial community [in the dragon’s digestive tract] in which diethyl ether is made as a waste product and exploited by dragons to breathe fire.”

Diethyl ether requires temperatures of about 320 degrees Fahrenheit to spontaneously ignite, so for our scientifically accurate dragon to breath fire, he’ll also need something to make a spark. Perhaps the dragon has special teeth made from steel and flint that he can chomp to act like a tinderbox; or, he could have a white phosphorus-coated upper palate that he could strike with a raspy tongue, akin to a strike-anywhere match.

Kepler 413-b would be a possible candidate for the planet that houses Westeros, if not for the inhabitable atmosphere
Image credit: NASA
Why Earth Doesn’t Suffer From Decades-Long Winter Like Westeros

In Westeros, winters and summers can last for years and years. But while they’re unfamiliar to us on Earth, these extreme seasonal shifts are possible…in fact, there are several possible ways that a planet could experience them.

A leading possibility is that the planet Game of Thrones takes place on is a planet that “wobbles” significantly on its rotational axis. As we explained during the recent spring equinox, axial tilt is the reason for the seasons, and because Earth stays tilted at a generally consistent 23.4 degrees, the length of seasons stays quite regular as we orbit our sun.

Earth’s axial tilt does change, but very slowly – varying between extremes of 22.5 and 24 degrees every 40,000 years, which is believed to help explain ice ages. But if, for some reason, a planet’s axial tilt changed much more quickly, the seasons would vary in length. And NASA has already found at least one exoplanet where this is the case – Kepler-413b, a gas planet 2,300 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. Kepler-413b has shifted its degree of tilt by as much as 30 degrees over 11 years. That’s a dramatic enough change to create some seriously screwy seasons. Perhaps NASA should be sure to look for signs of dragons when it makes the next pass at Kepler-413b?

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