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Fire, Ice and Physics - Rebecca Thompson **

It's easy to see the way that science fiction can fit with a 'science of' treatment - less so a fantasy such as Game of Thrones, which is the topic of the latest in this long-lasting genre. However, it's certainly not impossible. The Science of Middle Earth, for example, does a great job of exploring the scientific content of Tolkien's output, so it doesn't seem unreasonable that Rebecca Thompson should be able to do the same for George R. R. Martin's blockbuster series of books and the accompanying TV show.

I ought to say straight away that the title here is a little misleading, as by no means all of the content is physics. It covers paleantology, biology, zombieology (is that a word?) and more - but physics probably has the biggest word count, perhaps fitting as Thompson is a physicist. She tells us that the idea of the book is to use the popular fantasy series to introduce science to a wider audience, but I'm not sure that the way the material is presented in this book does that job well.

A good popular science book has a careful blend of facts, context and narrative. Facts, of themselves, are rarely sustainably interesting. The problem here, ironically in a book about the science of a piece of fiction, is that there are far too many facts and nowhere near enough storytelling. So, for example, the idea that there are 17 structures of ice is a bit interesting if you then make something of the fact as part of a narrative - but here we’re told it is the case (complete with a totally uninformative phase diagram, one of three in the book), then we move straight on to the next fact.  There’s nothing actually made of the information. The result is, sadly, rather dull. 

As far as I'm aware, most of the scientific content is accurate, but it does go a touch adrift when Thompson ventures into palaeontology. In trying to explain dragons scientifically (something Thompson eventually admits is an impossible task, which kind of undermines the premise of the whole book) we are told that pterosaurs, the winged flying reptiles that co-existed with dinosaurs, were cold blooded - however, modern opinion is that at least some if not all were warm-blooded. Also, we are told ‘Flying dinosaurs did exist, but as a group they are characterised as pterosaurs, with no one dinosaur bearing the name pterodactyl.’ Unfortunately, pterosaurs weren’t dinosaurs. And though pterodactyl isn't the generic term as it's often incorrectly used, the pterodactyl did exist, though admittedly it wasn’t a dinosaur either, as it was a type of pterosaur. 

The actual science bits were sufficiently uninspiring that I looked forward to the parts that  concerned the goings on in Game of Thrones (which we could go many pages without returning to). When I started the book, I thought I would find these the least interesting part, as I only ever watched half the first season and gave up on it (a particularly embarrassing admission as a friend of mine was in the show). I'm sure if you are a GoT fan that the parts involving the series will indeed be interesting, but there's still going to be a lot of the book that is hard work.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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