Dragons – Who Says They’re Fantasy Creatures?


I recently saw the film ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ and was very excited at the prospect of seeing Smaug the dragon, a character I loved reading when I was younger. After writing a post on how Star Trek technology is not so science ‘fiction’ as it was when it was written, I began to think if dragons are creatures of ‘fantasy’.

Obviously, if there were dragons somewhere in the world we would know about it but the fact is many different cultures from around the world have described the dragon in one form or another without coming into direct contact with each other.

A fascinating New York Times article explains:

“Dragon images have been found on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, on scrolls from China, in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Ethiopian sketches, on the prows of Viking ships, in bas relief on Aztec temples, on cliffs above the Mississippi River and even on bones carved by Inuits in climates where no reptile could live.”

Bearing this in mind, it is not outside the realm of possibility that dragons are/were a reality. They are usually depicted as magic creatures in modern literature but if you think about it, there is no aspect of dragons that cannot be explained by science. I’m not saying dragons did exist but there is no reason that they couldn’t have existed.

The quintessential dragon trait is fire breathing. A store of fire in the belly is highly unlikely as it would cook the meaty muscle of the dragon but there are two means of fire production that stand out as genuine possibilities. The first being the combustion of methane gas, a by-product of digestion. Many animals today are known for producing large quantities of methane gas. Most notably cattle have gotten a bad name for producing vast amounts of the gas, which is driving on the greenhouse effect.

Whereas cattle release methane as an unwanted nuisance, dragons may be able to store it in some sort of third lung or bladder-type organ. The body is already adept at transporting gas around the body, so if the blood was modified to carry methane gas from the intestines to a storage organ, much like it carries oxygen from the lungs, the fuel for the fire is sorted.

It could then force a flow of the gas through the nostrils or mouth. A spark would be needed to ignite the gas. This may be achieved by either grinding particularly hard teeth like a flint or, more likely, by producing an electric charge much like an electric eel. Thus we have all the requirements to make fire. Presumably there would be a valve type feature to prevent burning methane from being drawn back into the body and blowing the whole gas store.

The second means of creating fire is to mix two chemical solutions together which then react violently with each other and spontaneously combust, i.e. burst into flame without an ignition spark. A possible combination would be a hydrocarbon solution mixing with a strong oxidizing agent. Reactions such as this are used in rocket propulsion.

A similar action is used by the bombardier beetle, which squirts a combination of chemicals producing high levels of heat.

A small alteration to the chemical mix of the bombardier beetle could plausibly produce a combustible mixture. Picture a method similar to the spitting cobra but with each tooth releasing streams of different chemicals which collide mid air and burst into flame. Or a different mixtures being expelled from each nostril.

As regards to the flight of dragons, most depictions of the creatures show a large rounded body with bat-like wings. These look to be as aerodynamic as my foot, surely incapable of flight. But it is important to remember that giant reptilians are well known to be capable of flight, just think of the pterodactyls of Jurassic Park. Furthermore, the Chinese description of dragons rarely include wings – picture the snake-like costumes often seen in Chinese holidays where many people dance around wearing a long narrow papier-maché type of dragon, without the wings.

There are some aspects of dragons that have been created specifically for dramatic effect in books/TV shows such as wisdom, the ability to speak or blood with magical properties but the core features of dragons are very much possible.

So there you have it. Why can’t dragons have existed? A lot of their defining features have already existed in one form or another.


Posted by on December 17, 2012 in Fantasy


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Star Trekking Today

For many Star Trek fans, one of the main attractions of the show is the futuristic technology. For some it’s the battle scenes where we watch bursts from the phaser banks and hear “Shields down to 60%” while others are excited by the concept of exploring the galaxy for the sake of scientific research, seeking out new life and colonising new planets.


One Star Trek enthusiast (who admittedly is a genuine engineer) has started a campaign to build a full scale replica of the Enterprise over the next 20 years which can travel to Mars in under 90 days using Ion Propulsion Engines. The Build The Enterprise campaign has been turning heads of Trekkies (or Trekkers for the die-hards) around the world.

Obviously, the plan has received mixed reviews. There has been much admiration of the boldness and detail of the plan but equally there has been criticism, particularly at the cost – $40 billion per year for 20 years.

Anyway, the Enterprise is a 24th century ship. Even if we did have the money to build it, we don’t have the technology to kit it out. Or do we…

A lot of the technology we use in our everyday lives today featured prominently in the Star Trek arsenal of high tech gadgets. For example, the iPad is credited with being a revolutionary new technology developed by Steve Jobs. Please, Jean Luc was rocking that shit years ago.


Surprisingly, some of the technology, particularly from the original series, seems somewhat archaic compared to our devices. Look at Kirk’s communicator, it looks more like a phone that’s ten years out of date by todays standards than a 24th century technology. Especially when you consider that our phones are now looking more like tricorders, with all the tricks they can do. It was particularly surprising to see Spock show Captain Pike a paper printout in the episode ‘The Menagerie’. Although this can be forgiven considering it was a rehash of the pilot episode.


While we can pat ourselves on the back for surpassing the series in these respects, they won’t be much use in getting an Enterprise through space. For the full experience you need warp drive, tractor beams, phasers, transporters, shields, replicators, etc. You may be surprised to learn that we have already taken the first steps to these technologies too. Some of the most significant developments will leave you very impressed.


These seemed like one of the most fictitious and unlikely pieces of kit. All the other elements of the ship seemed possible given enough time and research, but to make stuff appear out of thin air always seemed to be truly science fiction. Surprisingly, of all the elements of the Enterprise, this is the one we have made the most progress with. Everyone with even a passing interest in technology has heard of 3D printers, which can literally print complex objects with moving parts. Have a look at this video to see how invaluable 3D printers will probably become in the coming years.

Still a long way to go until we can say “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” Another Picardism.

Tractor Beams

These beams were regularly used to apply forces to objects/ships to either pull them in or push them away. The Borg were fond of tractor beams to capture ships undamaged so that they could be harvested for new technologies. Scientists have made a small but significant breakthrough by using light beams to draw particles towards its source. Applications include possibly collecting particles from the tails of comets from a distance rather than risking entering the debris trail. This video explains it excellently (by the way, that youtube channel looks to be very good for science news based on first glance).

Warp Speed

Arguably the most important system on an interstellar spaceship, faster than light speed is essential to make manned journeys to planets outside our solar system viable. Consider Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to or own Sun. Even if we could travel at near the speed of light, it would take at least 4.24 years to reach the star and a similar time to make the return journey. Adding to this the time needed to carry out tasks such as research etc. It is clear these time scales dictate that a ship must carry vast stores of supplies and energy.

While travelling faster than the speed of light is well known to be impossible, scientists (including NASA) believe it may be possible to manipulate the fabric of space-time itself to ‘push’ the ship across the cosmos. By expanding the empty space behind the ship and contracting the space in front of it the ship slips through space-time at speeds high enough to shorten the journey to Proxima Centauri to just two weeks.


Note the bubble around the ship in this picture showing no change in the immediate vicinity, so the crew would not perceive anything unusual from their point of view. Unfortunately, the energy required to manipulate space-time like this is far too high but NASA actually have people working on how to make it a reality. Physicist Harold White has published work on this for them, exploring means of reducing the energy needed and proposing possible ship designs.



The concept of firing energy beams has been the dominant choice of weapon by science fiction writers for some time now. The development of this technology is probably just a matter of time now. High power lasers already exist, in fact the Curiosity rover is currently blasting rocks on Mars by delivering a million watts of power for a few billionths of a second in order to analyse the glow from resulting plasma. See the before and after images of Curiosity’s wrath below. A high power beam like this would most likely be lethal if fired at a person considering the body doesn’t cope well with being turned into plasma.


Considering the level of knowledge on star trek technology already discovered today, it may not be unreasonable to say that humans will be leaving our solar system and exploring the cosmic neighbourhood by the end of this century. Gene Roddenberry may have been bang on with his predictions on the timetable of space exploration. After all, it’s only about 50 years until ‘First Contact’. Then, we boldly go where no man has gone before.



Posted by on December 13, 2012 in Future, Science Fiction, Technology


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“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” – Lord Kelvin, 1900.

Clearly nobody told Einstein this. He would have been around twenty one at the time. Already on his way to becoming the father of modern physics, a field that seems to create ten new questions for each one it answers.

Lord Kelvin

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Posted by on December 11, 2012 in Technology


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