Mad Science Mondays: Dracarys Edition

June 3, 2019

Welcome to Mad Science Mondays, where we talk about depictions of science in movies, TV shows, and books. We dissect the good, the bad, the comical and the outright irresponsible. Who says learning about science can’t be fun?

Let’s talk Game of Thrones. Specifically, Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells,” an episode a lot of people hated for a lot of really good reasons relating to character arcs and storytelling. Those reasons have been discussed in detail all over the internet, so we’re going to focus on something different today. Specifically, the science of dragon fire.

“But Lindsey,” you say, “dragons are mythological creatures, unbeholden to the laws of science.”

Not necessarily.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with a rather odd book by Peter Dickinson, called The Flight of Dragons. It’s been out of print for a long time, but if you can get your hands on it, it’s a fascinating read. Dickinson takes the position that the reason so many cultures around the world have dragon myths is because these creatures actually existed. And then he uses scientific principles and examples from living creatures to explain how they did all the things they are famous for doing — including breathing fire.

Short version: dragons could fly because their bodies were filled with hydrogen, a gas that’s lighter than air. This hydrogen was produced by a controlled chemical reaction between their stomach acid – HCl – and the calcium in their bones. (In the animated movie that’s partly based on Dickinson’s book, the dragons get the calcium from eating limestone, which is a better idea, because it would reduce the recovery time between flights.) To land, dragons vented hydrogen gas into the atmosphere, reducing their buoyancy. And as we know from the Hindenburg disaster, hydrogen plus oxygen plus even a tiny spark makes a whole lot of fire.

But not an infinite amount. If we accept Dickinson’s logic, the dragon’s going to run out of flame (and the ability to stay aloft) as soon as it runs of out hydrogen. It’s going to need time to do some internal chemistry before it can flame again.

Which brings us back to Game of Thrones. How exactly did Drogon manage to produce enough flame to burn King’s Landing… without falling from the sky?

What are your thoughts on the chemistry of dragon fire? Are you a Game of Thrones fan? How do you feel about the final season?

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