Saturday, 20 April 2013

Imaginary elements

It's time to sit back and relax. Put your feet up and put on a good film... oh here comes some actual chemistry, a surprising rarity in sci-fi. Oh and it's totally inaccurate, excellent. 


As part of the "chemistry at the movies" blog carnival hosted by @SeeArrOh I'm going to look at a film that split viewers into lovers and haters. Avatar. An epic sci-fi and a basic remake of every other struggle of good vs evil, but with a huge budget and in 3D. So obviously, I thought it was awesome.

The film's premise is based on chemistry. Well at least it is based on the hunt for a new resource, a new mineral, a new element, whatever it is they give it an interesting name; unobtanium. Since Mendeleev put together the world's most famous piece of furniture, chemists have been working to fill in the gaps and add on to the end. So where does unobtanium fit on our nice little table?

Well it doesn't really fit anywhere, it's not real. But being not a real element is not a problem. The fictional element dilithium in Star Trek and the alloy carbonite in Star Wars have both become cult favourites and their use in the films is totally acceptable. The only problem that I have with the fictional unobtanium, is its name. The people at the Resources Development Administration must have used up all the hardtofindium and long ago depleted their stocks of wishwehadmoreofthisium. They had to get their hands on a new super element. James Cameron in his wisdom came up with a totally implausible name that no sane scientist would give to such a sought after material. It's this stupid name that in my opinion lets down an otherwise flawless film...

(What? There are body swapping giant blue aliens and floating mountains? That's totally fine.)

Other appearances

Unobtanium has actually made it to the movies before. In The Core, it was used to build their ship. A scientist in the film gives us a small insight into its composition, he "combined the chemicals in a tungsten titanium matrix", hmm.

The name has also been in use by engineers since the 1950s, according to trusty Wikipedia. So these films really could have put in a bit more effort to come up with something that sounded more sciencey. The tradition now is to name it after the discoverer or institute or a famous scientist, so what was wrong with Pandorium or (an egotistical and possibly worse) Cameronium. Despite being completely silly, unobtanium can still take its rightful place on the periodic table of imaginary elements (I have this poster on my wall), with other beauties such as dalekanium and crapcrapium.

For more Chem Movie Carnival fun follow the hashtag or have a look at this summary. I'd highly recommend the synthesis of kryptonite and how to poison a nitrogen based life form.


1 comment:

  1. It gets worse. In a workshop full of 7-11 year old kids, we asked the audience which elements they'd heard of. There were a few great answers (gold, iron, carbon), a few nearly-right (water)... and then the last kid puts his hand up and says "unobtainium".

    (That's not to mention the dad who randomly came out with lawrencium. Random knowledge is the best knowledge...)