Ever wondered if you could actually kill someone with molten gold? Or if dragons could be real? What about if you could have your very own pet dire wolf?
Those are just some of the questions author Helen Keen answers in her new book, The Science of Game of Thrones.
Divided into three main parts (Fire, Ice and Magic), the book explores different facets of George R. R. Martin’s fictional world, with everything from Dothraki noun-verb constructs to the conditions required to smelt Valyrian steel. Keen looks for real world analogues to decipher some of the more supernatural occurrences in the Seven Kingdoms.
EW caught up with Keen to talk dragons, dire wolves, and what other shows’ sciences she’d like to dig into next.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you always a Game of Thrones fan—did you read the books?
Yes. They’re huge books, and normally you’d go, “One of these will last me a whole winter.” But I was like, “No, I want to not do things. I want to go home in the evening and finish reading.” I think a lot of people talk about the books like that.
Did you become interested in the science of Game of Thrones while you were reading the books or watching the show?
The show. A lot of the people who work on the show really talk about how it was to get the dragons looking realistic [and] the way animals, lizards and even bats move. Obviously in order to make this beautiful fantasy world that looks really believable, you have to have so many elements from our world in it. [But] then you start thinking, “We don’t have any animals that breathe fire.” It’s this really cool trait that dragons have, but we don’t see that anywhere in the actual world. So where is that coming from? You just start having these questions and thinking about how much of this is possible.
How did you approach the research? Were you trying to watch the show and note what might have a basis in science?
I started by making a list of all the things that interested me in the show, like dire wolves. The La Brea Tar Pits are full of dire wolves [but] they’re not quite as huge as the ones in the book, which are about the size of ponies. Robb [Stark] is supposed to be riding into battle on the back of his. When you start looking at this stuff you think our world is a bit more fantastical than you thought as well. You escape into this fantasy world in Game of Thrones, but there’s also this element of actually weird and wonderful things in our world that you wouldn’t have necessarily known.
Like swords made out of meteorites. People actually did that.
Yes. The Egyptians. They didn’t have the technology to smelt iron and steel. They didn’t have furnaces to do that. They were like, “There’s this interesting stuff that keeps falling in the desert. Let’s use that.” Tutankhamen had all these things in his tomb made out of meteorite.
When you talked to scientists about the show, did you find that they are fact-checking it as they watch it?
Not so much. Some of them are, but I was asking people and saying, “If you’re watching this with your scientist hat on, how would you interpret this?” I was trying to find interesting questions to approach them with, see where that went. In the [most recent season] finale, there’s a massive explosion. We were watching the clip, and I was going, “At this point what’s going on here? This is a huge explosion, but is there really a substance we have in our world that’s the same as that?”
Was there anything you brought up where a scientist said, “There’s no real scientific basis here”?
Some of the stuff seems like it’s mostly magic. Like with the season change, George R. R. Martin says that’s kind of magic, but you [can] also say it’s about global warming, which isn’t magic. You can’t map an exact scientific explanation onto the phenomena on Game of Thrones but you can still find stuff that’s really interesting to use as a jumping off point.
Are there any other shows you’d like to delve into, science-wise?
Westworld raises lots of questions: Are computers self-aware? If we create this thing that looks like a human being, how should we treat it? What kind of rights should we give it? Not just science questions, but ethical ones. I think that stuff is pretty fascinating.