Could Game of Thrones's Dragons Really Fly? We Asked Some Experts

HBO
HBO

Game of Thrones is a show that requires a serious suspension of disbelief. It exists in a universe where the dead can rise from their graves, humans can see through the eyes of animals, anyone can travel between Dragonstone and Eastwatch at or near the speed of light, and Jon Snow can hold an unbroken frown for seven straight seasons.

Still, as we basked in the fiery glow of this season’s high-budget dragon action—cowering each time Drogon hovered in midair to pour a throatful of flame over one of Daenerys Targaryen’s enemies, we started to wonder: Could a beast that big really maneuver through the air like that? Fortunately, two scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying flying creatures agreed to clear that up for us.

Kevin McGowan, a Cornell ornithologist who specializes in crows, says there’s one major problem with dragon flight: physics. “They’re just so damn big,” he says. “Way too big to ever get off the ground.”

For comparison, there's the albatross, which weighs around 25 pounds and needs a 10-foot wingspan in order to heave itself into the air. And birds don’t scale up easily. McGowan says that as a bird gets heavier, its wingspan has to grow exponentially to keep up: “If you need a 10 foot wingspan for a 25-pound bird, what would you need for a 2000-pound dragon?” (Last season, one eagle-eyed engineer estimated that Drogon weighed around three tons and flew with a wingspan under 60 feet—and the dragons are even bigger now.)

In the real world, bird species generally stay small to avoid having to grow their wings exponentially. Those that do grow large wings, like the albatross, can travel long distances—but pay the price in maneuverability. Birds with smaller wings can maneuver in tighter spaces, but have to expend much more energy to stay aloft. “Birds make a lot of compromises to fly,” McGowan says, “and dragons just aren’t doing that.”

Still, there is some hope for letting our dragon-sized fantasies take flight. Michael Habib, a paleontologist and assistant professor of Clinical Integrative Anatomical Sciences at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, studies the flight mechanics of extinct animals, including giant pterosaurs once thought to be too big to get off the ground. He also works with film studios like Disney, Marvel, and Lucasfilm to design believable flying monsters like griffins, hippogriffs, and pegasi. There are three tricks, he says, for plausibly scaling up fantasy flying creatures.

First, you want to give them the right wing type. Like modern day bats, pterosaurs—which lived from 228 to 66 million years ago—had membrane wings, made of skin stretched over a series of elongated fingers. These are good for slow, maneuverable flight, and they don’t have to be as large compared to the body as a bird’s feather wings. Habib tells Mental Floss that a dragon with a good pair of wings would be able to sustain flight easily once it was in the air—but it could only get there “if it came with a catapult for takeoff.”

Second, a dragon needs to have the right skeletal structure. Their bones should be strong enough to withstand the massive mechanical forces involved in flight without getting too heavy. Hollow bones are best; they're actually stronger than a very dense bone with a similar mass. Habib explains that’s because the bone’s ability to withstand the strain of flight depends on its diameter—the wider it is, the more force it can take. A hollow, air-filled bone can be much wider than a dense bone full of marrow, and it will still weigh less than the dense bone.

Third, and most importantly, a dragon needs to have as much power available for takeoff as possible. Habib says that almost every animal that takes flight, from birds to flying squirrels to winged snakes, gets into the air by jumping, not flapping its wings.

“What birds get stuck on is they only have two hind limbs available for jumping power,” Habib says. “Bats do better—and pterosaurs did, too—because they walk on their wings and they can jump off of all four limbs.”

That makes a big difference, especially because most of a bird’s strength is in its wings. While birds take off with less than half their bodies’ muscle power, bats and pterosaurs launch themselves with everything they’ve got. That’s what allowed the largest pterosaurs to grow into 550-pound behemoths, while the heaviest-ever flying bird—the extinct Argentavis magnificens—maxed out around 150 pounds.

The dragons in Game of Thrones do have membrane wings, and they could conceivably have hollow bones. Back in season three, WIRED reported that the show’s animators based the dragons on a cross between an eagle and a bat. (Their strenuous, flappy hovering certainly takes after fruit bats.) Although the dragons walk around on their wings like bats, they don’t seem to jump off of them during takeoff. Throughout the series, we see them dive from cliffs and glide into flight, leap off their hind legs after a running start, and sometimes just flap their wings and leave the ground.

Habib says even if a dragon followed all of his specifications, it could only grow up to about 1000 pounds without grounding itself—not several tons, like Daenerys’s children.

“They’re probably beyond the flight limit for any anatomy,” Habib concedes, “unless they’re secretly made out of carbon fiber and titanium.”

“Maybe they’re full of hot air,” suggests McGowan, “or maybe it’s just magic.” To him, though, how the dragons fly doesn't really matter: “I think all day. When I go home, I don’t want to think anymore. I can just say it’s magic. I don’t care.”

Fact-Checking Pottermore's Claim That Witches and Wizards Used Spells to 'Vanish' Their Waste Before Modern Plumbing

Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved. Harry Potter Publishing Rights/J.K.R.
Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved. Harry Potter Publishing Rights/J.K.R.

By now, you may have heard the peculiar explanation of how witches and wizards in J.K. Rowling’s universe relieved themselves before modern-day plumbing. As Entertainment Weekly reports, a section of the Pottermore website pertaining to the Chamber of Secrets entrance (which, if you recall, was in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom) states that Hogwarts adopted plumbing in the 18th century. Before that, spells were cast to eliminate excrement—or perhaps blast it into another dimension.

“Hogwarts’ plumbing became more elaborate in the eighteenth century (this was a rare instance of wizards copying Muggles, because hitherto they simply relieved themselves wherever they stood, and vanished the evidence),” the site states in an essay by Rowling. This was initially revealed in 2015, but Pottermore's recent tweet on the subject has been causing a stink.

A lot of people aren’t satisfied with this unsavory explanation—"witches and wizards, some highly sophisticated beings who created complex magical governments and tamed the fiercest beasts, at one point just pooped themselves,” Entertainment laments—but it’s worth noting that the claim does pass a historical fact check of sorts.

According to Rowling, Hogwarts was founded in the year 990 C.E.—more than 600 years before Sir John Harington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth I and a distant relative of Game of Thrones star Kit Harington, invented the first flush toilet. Even though this technology existed in the 16th century, Harington only made two toilets: One for himself and one for his royal godmother. The first patented flush toilet didn’t arrive until 1775, thanks to a different design by watchmaker (and toilet inventor) Alexander Cummings. So the timing checks out.

Of course, people didn’t just pee themselves or pop a squat on the ground prior to working toilets, which is why so many people are baffled by Rowling’s explanation. Chamber pots and outhouses were used throughout much of human history, and members of the British ruling class had more luxurious arrangements. In the 16th century, King Henry VIII did his business atop a padded chair—covered in sheepskin, black velvet, and ribbons—with a chamber pot beneath it. However, male courtiers did sometimes do their business wherever they felt like it (palace stairwells were one popular location in France).

As for Hogwarts’ plumbing situation, it may sound like a gross and unnecessary detail, but it’s actually relevant to the story. According to a Pottermore essay penned by Rowling, the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets was nearly revealed when the school decided to build a bathroom on the site. However, a student and direct descendent of Slytherin named Corvinus Gaunt played a part in concealing its entrance—“even after newfangled plumbing had been placed on top of it.”

[h/t Entertainment Weekly]

Diagnosing the Home Alone Burglars' Injuries: A Professional Weighs In

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

By Lauren Hansen

Since its debut in 1990, Home Alone has become as much a part of the Christmas cinematic ritual as It's a Wonderful Life. But unlike that uplifting tale about the good of mankind, Home Alone tells a rather unsettling Christmas story of a precocious 8-year-old who, after accidentally being abandoned by his family, is forced to defend his home from two dimwitted burglars.

Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) turns his family's home into a veritable funhouse of torturous booby traps that the so-called Wet Bandits Marv (Daniel Stern) and Harry (Joe Pesci) hilariously stumble through, and the transformation of a suburban Chicago home into a relentless injury machine is nothing short of spectacular. But it does require quite a suspension of disbelief. Can a man really be hit square in the face with a steam iron and walk away unfazed? What kind of permanent physical damage would a blow torch to the head really do? To answer these questions and officially dissolve Home Alone's Hollywood magic, I spoke with my friend Dr. Ryan St. Clair of the Weill Cornell Medical College. Enjoy.

THE INJURY: BB GUN TO THE FOREHEAD

The Set-Up: Marv and Harry try to sneak into the McCallister home by sweet talking Kevin from the back door. Kevin, meanwhile, points his BB gun through the doggie door and directly at Harry's groin—and shoots. When Marv goes to investigate the source of Harry's pain, he is met by the same BB gun, which is fired at extremely close range to his forehead.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Classic air-powered projectile weapons typically have muzzle velocities of 350 feet per second or less. A BB fired at close range from such a weapon could break the skin, but will not penetrate the skull, and is unlikely to penetrate Harry's scrotum, especially through fabric."

THE INJURY: IRON TO THE FACE

The Set-Up: Thwarted by the BB gun at the back door, Marv runs around to the basement stairwell—which Kevin has deliberately iced. Once he has stumbled his way down into the dark basement, Marv grabs for what he thinks is the light bulb cord. It's actually a rope attached to a steam iron that is propped up on the laundry chute door. The heavy iron comes plummeting down and smacks Marv in the face.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Let's estimate the distance from the first floor to the basement at 15 feet, and assume the steam iron weighs 4 pounds. And note that the iron strikes Marv squarely in the mid-face. This is a serious impact, with enough force to fracture the bones surrounding the eyes. This is also known as a 'blowout fracture,' and can lead to serious disfigurement and debilitating double vision if not repaired properly."

THE INJURY: HANDLING A BURNING-HOT DOORKNOB

The Set-Up: While Marv is getting an iron to the face, Harry tries to enter the home through the front door. The first attempt doesn't go well, as the stocky burglar slips on the icy steps and falls to the ground, landing with a thud on his back. Easing up a second time with the help of the railing, Harry makes it to the front door, reaches for the doorknob—which we see is literally burning red—and grasps the searing handle, the pain of which forces him once again down the icy steps.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "If this doorknob is glowing visibly red in the dark, it has been heated to about 751 degrees Fahrenheit, and Harry gives it a nice, strong, one- to two-second grip. By comparison, one second of contact with 155 degree water is enough to cause third degree burns. The temperature of that doorknob is not quite hot enough to cause Harry's hand to burst into flames, but it is not that far off ... Assuming Harry doesn't lose the hand completely, he will almost certainly have other serious complications, including a high risk for infection and 'contracture' in which resulting scar tissue seriously limits the flexibility and movement of the hand, rendering it less than 100 percent useful. Kevin has moved from 'defending his house' into sheer malice, in my opinion."

THE INJURY: A BLOWTORCH TO THE SCALP

The Set-Up: Unable to get through the front door, Harry returns to the back. He kicks his foot through the doggy door to disarm a potential BB gun threat, delicately taps at the doorknob to test its temperature, and, finding it cool, opens the back door—only to unknowingly arm a blowtorch that fires at the top of his head.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Harry has an interesting reaction to having a lit blowtorch aimed directly at his scalp. Rather than remove himself from danger, he keeps the top of his skull directly in the line of fire for about seven seconds. What was likely a simple second-degree skin burn is now a full thickness burn likely to cause necrosis of the calavarium (skull bone)." That means the skin and bone tissue on Harry's skull will be so damaged and rotted that his skull bone is essentially dying and will likely require a transplant.

THE INJURY: WALKING BAREFOOT ON CHRISTMAS TREE ORNAMENTS

The Set-Up: After surviving the iron to the face, getting his shoes and socks peeled off by tar, and stepping onto a 3-inch nail, Marv abandons the basement entrance and enters the home through a conveniently opened window. Without looking down, however, and still barefoot, Marv jumps in, putting his full weight on a dozen pointy ornaments littered on the wood floor.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Walking on ornaments seems pretty insignificant compared to everything else we've seen so far. If I was Marv, I'd be more concerned about my facial fractures."

THE INJURY: PAINT CAN TO THE FACE

The Set-Up: Although severely injured, both the burglars are finally inside the house, and have forgone their looting plan for one of revenge. Hearing the taunts of Kevin's pre-pubescent voice, they scamper into the foyer only to slip dramatically on scores of Micro Machines, landing, once again, on their backs. Kevin cruelly mocks them from the top step: "You guys give up yet? Or are you thirsty for more?" Marv and Harry scramble up the staircase, where they are met by a speeding paint can attached to a rope. Harry manages to duck and evade the first hit, but Marv gets a paint can square in the face. Harry continues up the stairs but is hit by a second paint can. Both burglars end up back on the ground floor.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Assuming the paint can is full (roughly 10 pounds) and the rope is 10 feet long, Marv and Harry each take a roughly 2 kilo-newton hit to the face. That is easily enough to fracture multiple facial bones, and is probably going to knock you out cold. Also, I wouldn't expect either of the Wet Bandits to walk away from this with all of their teeth."

THE INJURY: SHOVEL TO THE BACK OF THE HEAD

The Set-Up: Kevin eventually lures the Wet Bandits through his house of injurious horrors, across the street, and into a neighbor's house. But Marv and Harry have clued into the fact that following the little tyke has provided them nothing but pain. They enter the neighbor's house their own way and meet little Kevin at the top of the basement steps. They hang him by his sweater from a hook on the back of a door and outline all the ways in which they will pay him back for the pain he caused, beginning with biting "every one of these little fingers, one at a time." Just before Harry can take the first bite, Kevin's elderly neighbor saves the day, coming up behind the burglars and hitting each one over head with his shovel, knocking them out cold.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Seriously? At this point, Marv and Harry have both suffered potentially crippling hand and foot injuries. Harry has proved to be nearly impervious to burns, and both managed to retain consciousness after taking a flying paint can straight to the face. Suddenly, a frail elderly man appears and weakly slaps them in turn with a flimsy aluminum Home Depot snow shovel. And, somehow, this is too much for them, and they collapse. This movie was way more believable when I was 8."

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