When looking for scientific accuracy most people wouldn't go to a sword and sorcery fantasy series, no matter how successful its television adaptation might have been. Nevertheless, amidst the dragons and White Walkers, it seems the books the TV show Game of Thrones was based on comply exceptionally well with network theory about human interactions, and some scientists think this contributed to its popularity.
Physicists, mathematicians, and psychologists have united to map the interactions between every one of the more than 2,000 characters named in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Although the total exceeds 41,000 interactions, the researchers concluded that for any one character the numbers are quite credible.
Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford famously proposed most people can only maintain significant relations with around 150 other people. Beyond this point extra friendships, working partnerships, or romantic attachments place too much cognitive strain on the average brain, Dunbar claims, leading previous ties to wither.
Although many argue Dunbar's figure is too low, the concept has been extensively applied in studying other social animals' interactions. Some scientists believe other species have their own, generally much lower, Dunbar's number, beyond which they suffer overload and can't keep track.
In Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a team that includes Dunbar analyzed the interactions of George RR Martin's 24 Point of View (POV) characters, whose perceptions shape how we experience the tale. Some have only a chapter or two each, but the 14 major POV characters interact with an average of 154 other characters. By spreading the development so widely, the paper argues, Martin helps readers keep track and avoid cognitive overload.
Much of the fame of the books and TV series arises from the way central characters meet grisly ends in ways normally restricted to minor players. "The methods developed in the paper excitingly allow us to test in a quantitative manner many of the observations made by readers of the series, such as the books famous habit of seemingly killing off characters at random," explained first author and University of Cambridge PhD student Thomas Gessey-Jones in a statement.
The paper concludes these deaths are nothing like as random and unpredictable as they seem. Instead, using a crowd-sourced chronology, they appear at intervals that match “power-law distributions...for a range of nonviolent human activities in the real world.” However, when analyzed on a chapter-by-chapter basis, rather than the Westerosi calendar, the distribution of deaths is geometric instead. In combination, this makes the deaths unpredictable, but also ring true in hindsight, arguably one of the books' key strengths.
Some may question the enormous effort scientists have made on this project when they could have been curing cancer or inventing a clean energy technology. However, Professor Colm Connaughton of the University of Warwick and co-author of the study argued important psychological advances could follow from the study. "People largely make sense of the world through narratives, but we have no scientific understanding of what makes complex narratives relatable and comprehensible,” he said. By investigating the structure of a work that resonated so powerfully with so many people the authors hope to start to answer that question and create tools applicable to other epic tales.
This isn't the first effort by scientists to apply science to Martin's imaginary world. One previous effort undertook the mighty task of trying to develop a global climate model for Westeros and Essos. Paleontologists have also borrowed names from the series for newly discovered species of ants, bee, and pterosaur.