Denver Pop Culture Con 2019 – Fire, Ice, And Physics: Teaching Science With Game of Thrones

by Brendan M. Allen

Game of Thrones is a fantasy that features a lot of made-up science—fabricated climatology (when is Winter coming?), astronomy, metallurgy, chemistry, and biology. Most fans of George R. R. Martin’s fantastical world accept it all as part of the magic.
A trained scientist, watching the fake science in Game of Thrones, might think: But how would it work? Fire, Ice, and Physics, will turn a scientist’s eye on Game of Thrones, exploring, among other things, the science of an ice wall, the genetics of the Targaryen and Lannister families, and the chemistry of dragon fire.
A physicist and an enthusiastic Game of Thrones fan will use the fantasy science of the show as a gateway to some interesting real science, introducing GOT fandom to a new dimension of appreciation. Even the most faithful Game of Thrones fans will learn new and interesting things about the show from this engaging and entertaining talk full of science lessons, show clips, and even some fire demos.

Okay, this was my second education panel, and this time, I have a (small) base of knowledge in the subject. Rebecca C. Thompson, Ph.D. hosted Fire, Ice, and Physics, and what I really appreciated about this panel is her approach to the occasional (sometimes probably accidental) scientific accuracy and the blatant inaccuracies of one of her favorite shows, Game of Thrones. Instead of looking at all the ways to tear the show down from a scientific perspective, Dr. Thompson gave several examples of how to use dynamic, sometimes stretched, show physics to engage students and ask the question, “Is that possible?” Don’t focus on the flaws. Find opportunities to open discussion.

First up? What the hell is up with these seasons? That’s probably the easiest question to answer. Earth is in an atypical orbit which is nearly a perfect circle and has a moon helping keep its balance. The planet Westeros is on more than likely has the more common asymmetrical orbit. If you read the books, you also know that George R.R. Martin told us a story about how Westeros used to have a second moon which exploded. This would have thrown the planet further off its irregular course, making weather go all kinds of sideways.
Westeros weather can open up lessons in weather, climate science, meteorology…

Let’s talk about Dragon Fire! At different points during the series, dragons are shown with different levels of destructive power coming from their flamethrowing abilities. Every time Harrenhal is shown in the program, the granite towers are shown melted, like candles. Balerion the Black Death was credited with melting the castle. Granite melts between 2219–2300 degrees Fahrenheit. Can dragon flame get that hot?

Well, yeah. White flame (which we see from full grown dragons a few times on the show) is upwards of 2700 degrees. But, when the baby dragons first start pumping out the hot stuff, it’s red. Now, red flame is hot, but nowhere near the intensity required to melt stone. The dragons’ flames, as we see them grow on the show, progresses from that red, through orange, to dazzling white.
Dragon flame opens up opportunities to teach about combustion, thermal radiation, and fire retardants (How exactly do those dragons’ throats not burn?). There are also some really cool demos (that Dr. Thompson could only describe, since TSA took away all her cool toys) that demonstrate many of the principals, and look really cool to boot. You can make a flamethrower out of a ketchup bottle, corn starch, and a candle. A piece of steel wool and a 9v battery demonstrates that everything catches fire. A dollar bill, some rubbing alcohol, and a little water makes for a really striking demo on fire retardants.

Why doesn’t steel work to fight White Walkers? But glass does? And some kinds of steel? This one’s easy. Steel changes when it gets cold. A lot. It gets very brittle. Assuming the White Walkers are cold (because, well, they’d have to be, right?), steel’s a bad idea. Glass, on the other hand, stays pretty much the same in cold temps. It does crack, but it actually gets a finer edge when it cracks and sheets off. Better weapon to fight frozen ice wights.

But…but…Valyrian Steel! Yes! That stuff! There’s a type of steel called Damascus Steel that exists, is very rare, and that only a few people could forge. The exact process has been lost to time, because…only a few people knew how to make and work with the stuff. The “Damascus Steel” you’ll find on the market these days is usually really “pattern welded” steel, which has an appearance similar to Damascus, but isn’t the same structurally. Basically, some metal workers accidentally discovered a process that created nanotubes in their steel, making it stronger and far less brittle than common steel. Better, but still not glass.

Lastly, that Wall. Could an ice wall of those dimensions exist? Yes. Sort of. It wouldn’t last long. Over time, ice under pressure would fracture, melt, and slide. There’s a slide attached that shows that The Wall would be The Slippery Lump after only a few years. Fail? Absolutely! Still opens up opportunity to teach about ice, states of matter, and climate science.

Sound interesting? You can pre-order Dr. Thompson’s book Fire, Ice, and Physics here to get the full story, with all the equations I barely understand, and loads more sciency explanations as to why GoT physics work when they do and why they wouldn’t when they don’t.

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