Learn More Than Jon Snow: “It’s Okay To Be Smart” Joe Hanson on the Science of Game of Thrones

Could the Game of Thrones universe ever exist? Is it scientifically possible for Westeros to have two moons? Can winter truly last for years at a time? And how is it possible for dragons to breathe fire? Those are some of the rough questions that biologist Dr. Joe Hanson tackles in “The Science of Game of Thrones” the PBS Digital Studios “It’s Okay to be Smart“. We loved the show and spoke with Joe to learn more. But, first, here’s the video:


[Jamie Adair:] First of all, I absolutely loved your “It’s Okay to Be Smart” video on “The Science of Game of Thrones,” what inspired you do it?

joe-hanson-phd[Joe Hanson:] For starters, I’m a huge fan of the HBO show, and I’ve just recently started digging into the books. The real question is “Why do this?” I mean, it’s a fantasy story, so what use is it to try and explain what we see using science?

I (and lots of other people, judging by the popularity of the video!) happen to think that applying some science makes G.R.R. Martin’s amazing fictional universe that much richer. I’m sure your readers get the same feeling from learning about the historical inspirations. I think one of the reasons we love GoT so much is that it’s not that different from our own universe. The characters experience the same emotions and challenges as we do (though theirs are a bit more deadly), up is still up, down is still down. We see a lot of our own world in theirs, so viewing it through our lens helps make it more real.

If you’ll allow me to tweak a Carl Sagan quote: “It does no harm to the romance of Game of Thrones to know a little bit about it.”

[Jamie Adair:]  How did the It’s Okay to Be Smart series with PBS Digital Studios come about? [For our international readers, PBS is a non-profit commercial-free American TV station that is partially funded by viewer contributions.] Why is PBS creating digital (or non-broadcast) content?


Joe should get a honorary maester’s chain for his superb contribution to GoT science. Image: © HBO

[Joe Hanson:] PBS and member stations have long been leaders in the digital media space and PBS Digital Studios is one of the latest initiatives in PBS’ overall digital strategy.  PBS Digital Studios is helping to expand PBS’ relationship with a generation of viewers who grew up watching and loving PBS on television, but are now accessing content in different formats and across platforms.

It’s Okay To Be Smart gained a following as an award-winning science blog (www.itsokaytobesmart.com), and we developed it into a PBS Digital Studios show last year. I feel so lucky to work with people who share my commitment and passion about making things that are not only intelligent and challenging and educational, but at the same time entertaining. That’s the recipe for a richer daily life.

[Jamie Adair:]  On your website, it says your mission is to tell the world about the AWESOMENESS of science. Is this simply you want share the joy or do you have a deeper purpose? (And, simply sharing the joy is an a-okay goal in my books. )

[Joe Hanson:] Here’s why I talk about science:

Give someone a fish, feed them for a day. Teach someone to fish, feed them for a lifetime.

Explain to a person how the fish evolved from an ancient single-celled organism that was the product of dispersed stellar dust that happened to become a rocky planet at a certain distance from an average star that would one day be covered in liquid water and have an atmosphere filled with oxygen, morphed by primordial chaos and natural selection into a complete reproductive metabolic multicellular system that a group of naked apes would someday call a “fish” … and you might just blow their mind.

I’m trying to do the last thing.

[Jamie Adair:]  Do dragons have to be flame resistant to breathe fire (or ignite it) as you describe in the video? Why wouldn’t their skin incinerate?


Image: © HBO. Giff artist via Buzzfeed

[Joe Hanson:] The dragons wouldn’t be carrying fire around inside of them, obviously. They’d have to have evolved some way to ignite it as it was expelled from their mouth. The idea I came up with in the video, which was inspired by my friend and fellow science writer Kyle Hill, was that dragons spit a volatile mix of chemicals that are ignited by sparks they create with metal-coated teeth.

The dragons would have to spray the chemicals with enough force that the flame does not travel backward into their mouth. And just like humans can walk on hot coals using thick skin as insulation, maybe dragons have big luscious lips that only Daenarys has ever gotten close enough to appreciate.

[Jamie Adair:] If the lands far beyond the Wall – that is, the Land of Always Winter — is, well, always winter and Westeros is roughly the size of South America, does King’s Landing have the correct climate?

[Joe Hanson:]  If we take the wall as the Arctic Circle, and the Land of Always Winter as, well, the land of always winter, that means Castle Black is around 66.5˚ latitude. If we place arid Dorne around the 30th parallel, which is the latitude of many of Earth’s deserts, that means that King’s Landing is around 40˚ latitude.

That’s the same latitude as the Mediterranean, which is famous for a mild, temperate, rather wonderful climate. I’m a scientist, not a historian, but it’s pretty easy to imagine King’s Landing as a sort of Florence or Athens. But I wouldn’t build a vacation home there, because winter is coming.


Thank you very much to Joe Hanson for speaking with us today. Also, thank you to Brittany Borsanyi at Goodman Media for coordinating this interview. You can catch more of Joe’s fantastic “It’s Okay to Smart” series on its YouTube channel.

“It’s Okay to Be Smart” is based on Hanson’s award-winning blog of the same name. The series explores fascinating scientific concepts and breakthroughs and explains them in a way all viewers can appreciate.  Joe Hanson has a Ph.D. in biology and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and two adorable dogs.


Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."


  • Reply May 31, 2014


    I liked the Discworld and Dragon Knight take on dragons, which made an effort to be a bit more realistic (though both probably have serious stumbling points).

    As for the weather, what about volcanic activity? Those have caused extended periods of cooling in the past, though you would think that sooner or later people would notice rather regular (and powerful) eruptions and I’m not sure if they would cause these cycles (or be predictable in that a long summer would mean a long winter).

  • Reply May 31, 2014

    Jamie Adair

    re: Volcanoes
    I think it would take a lot of volcanic activity (e.g., multiple volcanoes erupting) to cause multi-year winters (with deep snow).It is a fair/interesting point though. Some researchers believe that the Little Ice Age (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Ice_Age) was caused by volcanic activity – which I think is your point.

    Amazingly, a volcanic eruption can cause overcast, cooler weather for up to a year (I believe)? This is going from memory. I do know (anecdotally) that the year Mount St. Helen’s erupted the weather in the western half of North America was overcast for quite a while.

    One story I have heard is from a friend who lived near-ish Mount St. Helen’s when the volcano started to blow. Despite warnings not to drive, he ventured out and drove home as the ash began to fall like grey snow. He had to use his windshield wipers to clear the ash away. The ash scrapped up his windshield badly, but he made it home okay,

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