The chemistry of Game of Thrones

I think it’s fair to say that a large proportion of us are waiting impatiently for series 6 of cult TV phenomenon “Game of Thrones” which is due to air on April 24th (2016).

I started thinking about the series a little more; a mixture of little-known and world-renowned actors and actresses, stunning sets and costumes, an incredibly complex storyline and, I realised, a whole heap of weird and wonderful chemistry!

What killed King Joffrey?

Chemist Raychelle Burks, Ph.D., of Doane College did a great investigation for the The American Chemical Society a while ago, trying to prove what poison killed King Joffrey at the Purple Wedding for example.  This was a huge story base and took everyone by surprise!  Word has it that the author of the original books, George R.R. Martin, who also worked on the screen play sent actor Jack Gleeson who played Joffrey in the series a note saying that he’d done an amazing job, and that everyone hates him! No wonder he got poisoned!

You can see her video here:

What was Tyrion Lannister’s Wildfire made of?

Another element from the series with a decidedly chemical feel to it is “Wildfire”.  It’s portrayed as a kind of gunky liquid with a strange green colour and is ferocious, burning so hot that water won’t extinguish its flames.  It can also explode if it doesn’t appreciate how it’s being handled!  Tyrion Lannister (King Joffrey’s uncle) thwarts wannabe King of the North, Stannis Baratheon in his naval attack on King’s Landing by sending a ship loaded with Wildfire into Baratheon’s fleet, firing just a single flaming arrow to cause such an explosion that most of the armada is destroyed!
Chemical weapons like this have a surprisingly long history of use during warfare even as far back as truly ancient times.  We know of a substance called “Greek fire” which could have provided the inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s Wildfire but no one really knows exactly what it was.  I found notes to show that archaeologists believe it could have been a combination of naphtha (a substance derived from coal tar or other hydrocarbons), calcium oxide (quicklime), sulfer and other compounds but I doubt we’ll ever find out for sure!

Could the treasured Valryrian steel swords be worth watching out for?

In another of the American Chemical Society’s Reaction videos, cosplayer and science geek Ryan Consell investigates the chemistry behind Valyrian steel; a rare and treasured material in the “Game of Thrones” universe. Forged with dragon fire in a civilization lost to time, the super-sharp, super-light and super-strong blades are mysterious even to those who wield them. Turns out they’re pretty mysterious to real-world chemists, too.

As Consell explains in the video (and in more detail on his blog), steel is an alloy: a mixture of metal and some other material. Steel is mostly iron, but it has a lot of carbon mixed in. Carbon makes the steel hard, but that also makes it more breakable. So to get a sword that was both incredibly hard and incredibly durable, you’d need to experiment a lot.

But the most confusing thing about Valryrian steel is its appearance: Martin describes it as being beautifully swirled, and his characters frequently say that its mixed color comes from being folded thousands of times. This is probably a reference to real-world Damascus steel, which has a similar appearance (and which we’ve also lost the forging recipe for).

The problem is that this folding isn’t actually a sign of good steel. From Consell’s blog:

Folding metal and forging it out doesn’t do anything good for a blade. It’s actually bad for it. Every fold adds inclusions into the material; bits of oxide, soot, sand and other impurities from the environment would work their way in and mess up the steel.

The actual purpose of historical pattern welding is to mitigate a problem. The problem being that they have good smiths but bad steel.

In fact, Damascus steel — which researchers think got its strength from strong wirey nanotubes that ran through the blade — probably wasn’t actually that strong by modern standards. It was just impressive in the 18th century, which probably wasn’t all that hard to achieve.

After all that fighting we might need some pain relief!

In this strange primitive land there is a lot of bloodshed.  There are of course illnesses and traumas not caused by battle but all are treated with the “milk of the poppy”; a serious painkiller that can, if given in high doses, leave the recipient unconscious.

Morphine, too, is derived from poppy plants, and was first extracted from opium resin in 1803, gaining popularity among doctors as an effective painkiller.  It was used widely in the U.S. Civil War!

Though morphine has largely been replaced by other drugs today, poppies are still an important source of the class of painkillers known as opiates. With ever-tightening guidelines for use of the drug I can only imagine modern doctors horror at the widespread use of Martin’s “milk of the poppy” but I do wonder what amazing substances and thesis you put our DrySyn system though and hope that we can play a tiny part in the production of the miracle drugs of the future!

What else?

There are so many more elements we could focus on but I think I’ve given you enough to read already!  Have you made any studies of this strange world chemistry though?  We’d love to hear what you’ve been doing!