Game of Thrones and black holes at latest Astronomy on Tap

The extreme seasons on the popular HBO series Game of Thrones and supermassive black holes were the subjects of talks at the most recent Astronomy on Tap event held at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard.

AoT vs. GoT: Reasons for the (Extreme) Seasons

Russell Deitrick

Russell Deitrick makes a point during his talk at Astronomy on Tap II at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Russell Deitrick is an graduate student in astronomy at the University of Washington, studying models of the dynamics of exoplanets in multi-planet systems. He is particularly interested in how interactions between planets with high eccentricity and high mutual-inclination might affect habitability of those planets. That, it would seem, makes him the perfect one to figure out what could cause the sort of long, severe, and unpredictable seasons the characters on Game of Thrones experience.

Deitrick started with a quick primer on what causes seasons. The main cause is the axial tilt, or obliquity, of the planet. Earth, for example, has an axial tilt of about 23 1/2 degrees, and when a pole is inclined toward the Sun its hemisphere enjoys summer.

There are several ways to mess with the seasons, Deitrick explained. Our Moon stabilizes precession—the wobble of the orbital axis like a top—so if a planet doesn’t have a large moon, precession would be greater and there would be more variance. You could alter the orbit itself, making it highly eccentric.

Other factors that can change climate include volcanism, solar variability, or having a planet in a binary star system.

Deitrick ran computer models in which all of these varied wildly. The simulations didn’t match the show.

“Eccentricity can’t really explain the duration of the seasons on Game of Thrones,” Deitrick said. “If you’re at high eccentricity, you may have a very long winter, but you’re going to have a correspondingly short summer, and the seasons are going to be the same length.”

He noted that changing the obliquity of the axis can explain everything except the long duration of the seasons. Volcanos can create long seasons, but Deitrick said that doesn’t fit in with the show.

“The problem with the volcanic winter is that it’s possibly too random,” he said. “The fact that the seasons are quasi-predictable suggests that it probably isn’t related to volcanos.”

He said solar variability takes to long to create climate change on the short time scale of a season, and a binary star system doesn’t appear to be part of the story in Game of Thrones.

“You’d think they’d mention somewhere in the series that there were two suns,” he said.

“None of these can explain that long night, that generation of darkness,” Deitrick added.

“The seasons on Game of Thrones probably can’t be explained by a single theory,” Deitrick concluded. “So they’re probably magic.”

Supermassive black holes: size matters

Michael Tremmel

Michael Tremmel is working on figuring out how supermassive black holes came to be. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Michael Tremmel, another UW astronomy grad student, took on an equally mysterious if less fictional topic in his Astronomy on Tap talk: supermassive black holes.

Tremmel explained that an ordinary black hole—one of between one and 10 solar masses—is the result of simple stellar evolution.

“When a massive star runs out of fuel and explodes in a supernova, the core of the star continues collapsing and forms a black hole,” he said.

The problem is that supermassive black holes can be of billions of solar masses and could not have formed in the same way.

“It’s still an open question where these black holes came from,” Tremmel said, “but we think that they must have formed very, very early on in the universe when the first stars that exist were beginning to form. Before there were galaxies, before there were stars, there were supermassive black holes.”

We’ve never seen a black hole because they don’t emit light. Their gravity is such that even light can’t break free. But the evidence that they exist is plain. Tremmel explained that we have observed stars orbiting rapidly around the center of our own galaxy. By gauging the trajectories of these stars we reach one conclusion about what they are orbiting.

“This object must be really, massive, and really, really small,” he said. “The only thing this thing could be is a black hole that is a billion solar masses.”

Astronomy and beer go together at Bad Jimmy's.

Astronomy and beer go together at Bad Jimmy’s.

We’ve seen the evidence of black holes in other galaxies by catching the glow of gas as it is consumed by supermassive black holes.

“This gas is flowing in, spiraling around, and becoming very, very hot,” Tremmel noted. “As that gas gets really hot it emits a lot of light.”

Tremmel said it’s an exciting time for his field of study, trying to figure out more about the formation of supermassive black holes.

“These relatively tiny objects within a galaxy are a true mystery still for astronomers,” he said.

The next Astronomy on Tap Seattle is scheduled for Wednesday, May 20 at 7 p.m. at Bad Jimmy’s. It’s free, and you can RSVP here.

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