Dany's dragons, Wun Wun the Giant and Westerosi wildfire, explained with science

Salon talks to "The Science of 'Game of Thrones'" author Helen Keen about parallels between our world and "GoT"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 25, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)


Most people don’t reach the end of a “Game of Thrones” episode and contemplate the chemical formula for Valyrian steel or why generations of inbreeding within the Targaryen clan didn’t result in passels of silver-haired simpletons sporting extra ears and fingers.

British comedian and science enthusiast Helen Keen does. She and fans of her solo stand-up show “It Is Rocket Science” have thought about it so intensely, in fact, that she was moved to write “The Science of Game of Thrones,” a breezy exploration of the biology, physics and chemistry behind all the fire, ice and magic, which is available in bookstores today.

Tempting as it may be to dismiss much of what's seen on HBO’s hit series as pure imagination, Keen has found plenty of factual parallels to hard science in her research, bouncing between theories based in physics, engineering methods, biology and natural history with the approachable intelligence of an inspiring if slightly daft high school teacher.

“If you are a bit of a sort of obsessive person like me who is really, really into it, you start thinking, ‘Well, yeah, how much of this is real?’ and also ‘How much of this could be real, given the strange times we live in, in terms of how fast science is moving and how fast fields like genetics are moving and stuff? Could we live in a world with dragons? Could we live in a world with giants?’ These are things that bear thinking about,” Keen said.

Actually, they do.

“The Science of Game of Thrones” is required reading for anyone harboring a mote of curiosity about how magic manifests in our world in the guise of amazing real-life creatures and phenomena. It’s also a great gift for the adorable know-it-alls in our lives who would love nothing more than to impress friends and woo the ladies by reciting the engineering calculation that explains how a baby dragon could immolate a grown man.

That equation is in the book, along with directions for fun party games and homegrown science projects, fact-based stories about the creatures, people and traditions of Westeros and Essos and oodles of friendly jokes. All of it is backed up by information gleaned by Keen’s research and interviews with an array of experts, including scientists, engineers, historians and crew members who work on the HBO series.

“It was a nightmare to fact-check, let me tell you,” she admitted in a recent conversation conducted over Skype. One can only imagine.

Read on for more of Salon’s conversation with Keen, in which she sheds light on humanity’s evergreen fascination with dragons, why it might be smart to have a Dutch ally in the event of a White Walker invasion and what billionaires of the future may commission as the ultimate party favor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The concept for this book basically started with people coming up to you after your show and talking to you about it. Let’s talk about the first subject that you decided to explore and how the idea expanded from there. What was the first question? Something along the lines of "Could we live in a world with dragons?"

Yeah, I am sounding like quite a dragon nerd now.

There is something very compelling about dragons. Because you see there [are] these myths of dragons arising in cultures all over the world in apparently unconnected cultures. Chinese dragons, for instance, tend to be quite friendly and benign, whereas English dragons are definitely quite ferocious and have to be killed in order to save people.

Obviously we will never know, but they sort of cast quite an interesting light on our past, whether it's [the] relatively recent historical past of people trying to explain dinosaur bones and the bones of fossilized creatures that they've found . . .  [or] things like underground explosions.

Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, before people knew about things like methane gas building up, you go underground to look for something, particularly if it's something valuable and then there's a massive fiery explosion. Maybe your friends are killed or whatever. How would you explain that? You explain that via a monster.

Of course, I also got really interested in the evolutionary aspect of it that dragons are sort of like these super predators, these sort of sums of all human fears.

It's almost like a dragon is actually something that predates us as humans, a kind of way of remembering the most terrifying things that you must avoid at all cost. If you are a creature who has a very healthy fear of those kind of predators, then you are more likely to live, pass on your genes and also have descendants who are also quite wary but manage to survive.

Yes, this is a book that jumps between facts about physics, chemistry, facts about the natural world. What was the most interesting information about real world science as it applies to your theme that you discovered in the course of writing it?

I got really interested in the idea of giants. There's very interesting research at the moment that the Dutch are the tallest people on earth. The nearest thing we have to giants in our world, are, in fact, the Dutch.

Surely our Dutch readers will love hearing that they somehow resemble Wun Wun.

I hadn't actually thought about that so much, that you know, why are we the height that we are? There's a bit in the book, the idea of the square cube rule. . . . It's a very imprecise sort of measure really because obviously your height might double in size but your volume increases by much more of that. So basically rather than becoming stronger as we get taller, we would actually start to become weaker. Also the stuff that our bones are made from isn't actually able to withstand that much.

It's interesting because you think of people in the past being shorter, and we think generally we are as a species generally getting taller. . . . If that's the case, then maybe we haven't reached our maximum height. Maybe we will carry on getting a bit taller. Even though we can't genetically engineer giants or these huge creatures, maybe our species, we will sort of continue our march towards tallness and all will be like the Dutch, I guess.

The guy I talked to about it was a Dutch researcher, and he's been looking at this. I said, "Do you mind me asking how tall you are?" He said, "Six feet six inches." I asked, "What drew you to this research?" His theory is basically the Dutch are getting taller because Dutch women prefer tall men. It's a sexual selection thing.

Ha! That guy must be very happy.

Well, that's the thing, I didn't want to kind of take it to the next level and go, "Well, yeah, you are kind of clearly doing quite well; there's probably some perks to this research." Yeah, I felt that might be being slightly intrusive.

Also we can sort of change other species. I slightly touch on this in dogs, just how we've essentially over a very long period of time, genetically engineered dogs and turned these wolves into all kinds of weird, strange shapes and sizes. We’re all sort of wondering if that's kind of a hint of what's to come in terms of, the better we get at genetic manipulation, the more weird and wonderful creatures we will have out there.

Sorry, I am probably getting a bit carried away there.

 No, that's OK, please continue.

I just think it's really, really interesting. From the point of view of genetics and biology, there is some really, really interesting stuff on the horizon.

Some bioethicists put forward the idea towards the end of last year that at some point a billionaire is going to want to give his son or his daughter the ultimate — or her, it could be a female billionaire, very sexist there! — who wants to give their kids the best-ever party. So they get someone to genetically engineer a little flock of unicorns to come in.

You know, that thing with parents who are always competitive. Everyone wants to throw the best party. so you put out unlimited money, creating fantastic animals for your kids and their friends to take away with them at the end of the day. It sounds fantastical, but this may be something we are looking at. We are starting to move towards a place where that seems to be more possible, I think.

Can’t wait! The book also contains a lot of pop culture references. Obviously you are a gigantic “Game of Thrones” fan. But I also notice like you had a couple of quotes from, say, “Conan the Barbarian” and other fantasy titles.

That's good. I worry sometimes about my nerd references. I was doing that . . . and I was like, maybe this is too weird; this is too weird a stream of references. I'm glad you got those.

It’s plain to see that this is a genre that is near and dear to your heart. How long have you been interested in the “swords and sorcery” fantasy genre? That's a very specific subset of fandom.

I started out kind of more into science fiction because I was really, really into space as a kid. I didn't grow up in a very scientific household. So I didn't really see that kind of demarcation between what was science fiction and what was science fact. So I kind of thought, “Yeah, of course, I'll grow up and I'll be able to go live on the moon or whatever. That will be totally normal by then!”

For me the route into being just interested in science was very much through science fiction and through some of these ideas sort of permeating and really getting stuck in my mind. You think, Oh, I wonder if that's true? Or I wonder if that ever will be the case. There was a sort of blurring of the boundaries between what's possible and what's real and what might happen. If you are interested in those sort of things, you are going to be drawn to the fantasy genre and the science fiction genre, I guess.

I am guessing that you envision a certain type of person reading this book. Who is this book really for?

From my point of view and it's whimsical and cheesy to say this: But I think I was just writing the book that I would really like to read. I hope it will appeal to other people who are geeky and curious and sort of, you know, want to think about this whole range of stuff.

It is kind of a book for nerds. I think it's quite hard to get away from that. But then, you know, everyone's a nerd these days. We live in a geeky world.

I ask that question because I could envision one of my favorite science teachers from high school pulling out and using, for example, the specific passage that explains the volume of flammable gas that [Daenerys Targaryen’s black dragon] Drogon would have to expel to roast a grown man alive. At the same time I could also see her looking at other racier parts of the book and saying, “Oh no, I can't hand out this whole thing.”

Yes. Exactly.

I wanted to get into the really, really hard, nitty-gritty science. At least for some of it, I wanted to really think about the kind of phenomenal power that you would actually need as a dragon to set fire to another human being. That bit that we talk about — I think it is from the scene where the slave owner kind of gets it, and it's actually a very young dragon.

Now obviously Daenerys' dragons are fully grown and you know they can pretty much destroy a warship without really breaking a sweat. We start to really get the sense that these dragons are these weapons of mass destruction. They are kind of a nuclear weapon equivalent in Westeros. There's a sort of hard science to that. Like when we talk about stuff like wildfire, there are amazing —

Sorry, you have seen to the end, haven't you, of season 6?

Yes, and it’s impressive that you included observations about the end of the most recent season in the book.

I was going to say, there's such an explosion. Quite a few people have asked me about that, actually.

People seem to be quite interested to know what kind of explosive, what kind of substance has that power that [wildfire] seems to have.

Obviously, there are similarities with napalm because it's a substance that burns on water and it's very difficult to extinguish. You basically smother it; you can't just put it out with water like regular fire. There's also sort of a bit of similarity with something like Greek fire, which we don't know that much about, but it seems to be this historical substance that people were using in battles.

Ultimately, there is a magical component to it, and it is quite nice to think about what that magical component would be. How could something have that explosive force? The scientist I was speaking to was positing that maybe it reacts with — if we assume that the air in Westeros is the same as the air in here — maybe it's something that reacts with nitrogen. Obviously we don't have explosives really that quite do that fortunately. But the idea that something would have that kind of destructive power; it’s nice to actually look at: What would the science of that be?

Did you find a lot of the scientists and historians you spoke with were “Games of Thrones” fans?

It was a real mixture actually. A lot of scientists watch the show, and I am imagining that they have probably already started thinking about some of this stuff because that is what they are like. There is certainly is a crossover between people who like science and people who like “Game of Thrones.” I hope so anyway; otherwise the book is going to be in trouble.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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