Science fiction and fantasy alike are ripe with imaginary elements made up to capture the imagination of any viewer/reader/player ensconced in the fictional Universe at hand. Some of these can be clever, funny and even thought-provoking while others can be well… kind of stupid.
Creating new elements is already something the human race has succeeded in doing. Pioneering work by Glen Seaborg and his ideas summated in the Islands of Stability gave rise to the discovery of dozens of new elements. I have already written to some extent about the creation of new elements in my review of Iron Man 2 so I will allow a simple reference to suffice.
Here I want to pay homage to my favorite made-up elements from cinema, television shows, comics, and even video games. My ranking is based on a number of factors including their humorous and witty effects, the intelligence of their origins, the validity of the science in said sci-fi, etc. This is all opinion-based so don‘t lose your shit. Or if you want to lose your shit, do it in the comments below or better yet, give me your own top 10 list.
Also, I will not discriminate against alloys or minerals. These imaginary elements do not have to be in their purest form. So if you want to be pedantic, please do. But know that I will not care.
- Jerktonium (from SpongeBob SquarePants)
I found this one to be pretty hilarious to be honest. In short, the principal antagonist of SpongeBob, Plankton, discovers the element ‘Jerktonium’ whose effects include (you guessed it) turns people into jerks when ingested. His plan is to put Jerktonium into fruitcakes and turn everybody in Bikini Bottom into jerks. It’s interesting to theorize how an ingested material can induce the procreation of jerks in a population, but it would have to affect the nervous system in a very fundamental way. It would require inhibiting all neuro-pathways in our brains that are responsible for our altruistic nature. Some studies have been performed on neural activation associated with altruistic behavior so essentially what Jerktonium does is inhibit those particular pathways.
Oh wait. SpongeBob and his pals are not human. They live in the sea. Never mind.
- Feminum / Amazonium (from Wonder Woman / DC Universe)
Feminum (or Amazonium if you prefer) is the element used in Wonder Woman’s bracelets (or gauntlets in the more recent Justice League-related films). If you believe the press releases, the element is indestructible (a common theme among the imaginary elements, you’ll find) but it absorbs the impact of incoming attacks, allowing Wonder Woman to deflect automatic weapon fire, energy blasts, and projectile weaponry. This deflection capability is reminiscent of Magneto’s abilities to influence any surrounding magnetic fields, which is pretty cool. But Feminum can only be found on Paradise Island where it is mined, so I guess there’s a chance that our Western-civilized hero might be invoking a slave trade upon the native population. As a tangent, that was actually a plot line in one of the older episodes except it was Nazis who were setting up a slave trade on Paradise Island; forcing Amazonian women to mine Feminum. Not the other thing you were thinking.
- Bombastium (from Disney)
In the Disney Universe Bombastium is apparently the rarest element in the world (Universe?). The strange thing about Bombastium is its precise characteristics. If a single atom is dropped into a barrel of water, it becomes a barrel of ice cream; differently flavored every time it’s done.
I don’t know where to begin explaining this one. I suppose that the element has an infinite number of different isotopes that translate in the differently flavored ice cream, or alternatively it could be a quantum effect akin to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
Ice cream in and of itself is a colloidal substance; a mixture of many different things. You need water of course, but also everything you find in milk; proteins, fats, etc. How one atom mixed in a barrel of water would give this mixture, I have no clue. I might be inclined to believe that the scientists of the Disney Universe may have mistook Bombastium for an actual single-celled organism perchance that turns its surroundings into mush when placed in water, somewhat akin to the hagfish that makes everything around him a gelatinous slime when he’s afraid. I’m not saying per se that Disney’s scientists are bad at their job. But they probably are.
- Tritanium (from Star Trek / Eve Online)
Tritanium is a name of imaginary elements found in two space-based fictional Universes; both Star Trek as well as the Eve Online Universe. I wanted to include both because in both cases, Tritanium is used as a construction material though its inherent characteristics are fundamentally different in both Universes.
In Star Trek, Tritanium is actually an alloy which is used to build hulls, armor plating, interlocks, projectiles and more. It is said to be 21.4 times harder than diamond (which is the hardest substance known to man… at the time of writing) which means that it must have an incredibly rigid structure, even more than the sp3 hydridization of carbon allows. Furthermore, the ability to melt tritanium is beyond Federation weapons technology. This begs the question: How the hell is it possible to mass-manufacture all this extremely delicate technology using an ore, you can’t manipulate???
In the Eve Online Universe on the other hand, Tritanium is a primary construction material in most ships and is extremely abundant in material called Veldspar. What is intriguing about Tritanium in Eve Online is that it is very corrosive and can’t be used in raw form within most atmospheres. Hence it must be used to construct ships whose sole purpose is interstellar space travel. Not for landing in planetary surfaces.
This implies that the Tritanium metal is incredibly reactive with small gaseous molecules such as O2, that would cause the metal to degrade very rapidly. Imagine an even more corrosive metal than iron or aluminum, but with an even greater potential for structural strength.
- Kryptonite (from Superman / DC Universe)
Probably the most predictable entry on this list is Superman’s Achilles heel. In fact, the name or word Kryptonite has become so widespread it might as well be a synonym for somebody’s Achilles heel.
Famously, Kryptonite omens the undoing of Superman. This fluorescent, radiation-emitting mineral can either give humans severe radiation damage or gift them with superpowers. It’s a bit of cliché but that’s exactly my point. This is THE cliché. Among the very first imaginary elements, coming from outer space, strangely iridescent, possessing the ability to give you powers beyond your imagination or rob you of your life’s essence. This is the original fickle material that will make your dreams come true whether they’d be dreams of grandeur or your worst nightmares.
Otherwise it’s your run of the mill heavy element that’s very radioactive. So… not much else to say about it except that in the comics Kryptonite can be found in great varieties including Green-, Red-, Blue-, White-, X-, Gold-, Silver-, and even Jewel-Kryptonite. I’m sorry to say my powers of deduction fail to make any sense of all these.
- Adamantium (from X-Men / Marvel Universe)
Arguably the most famous use of Adamantium in the Marvel Universe is Wolverine’s skeleton which is laced with this matter. Adamantium is not a true element but rather it is a metallic alloy. Its precise molecular structure, however, remains a clandestine secret of the US government but its production process is fairly well documented in the comics.
In short, by mixing a pair of chemical resins of unknown composition together and kept at around 1500°F (or 816°C), “…the resulting liquid can be cast or worked into a particular shape. After an eight minute flux period, the mixture sets and becomes solid regardless of temperature. Its molecular structure is extremely stable, and its shape can only be altered by precise molecular arrangement” –Marvel Wiki
Of course this process is a bit reminiscent of the formation of steel which is a metallic alloy as well as Adamantium, made with a base of iron, but Adamantium’s ingredients do include the likes of steel and Vibranium, another imaginary alloy (that didn’t make it into this list) from the Marvel Universe which is used in Captain America’s shield.
What is interesting about Adamantium is relatively low temperature required for the material to reach its optimum atomic-packing capability that allows the alloy to become virtually un-malleable. In the case of Adamantium (and axiomatically Vibronium) there is an unknown component required that would allow this compactness of atoms to be so strong.
Generally when it comes to crystallography, one studies how atoms arrange themselves in crystal lattices that make up some sort of closed-packed structures. This is all based on how you can arrange spheres in as closely packed structures as possible.
This can be enhanced by changing around the molecular composition (like steel) but what if the sphere is not representative of the atoms we’re dealing with?
Bear with me.
If the atoms we’re dealing with are better represented by a hypersphere rather than a 3-dimensional sphere, which may open up endless possibilities of packing efficiencies. Of course this is just conjecture, but I could imagine that if whatever imaginary element gives rise to Vibronium and then Adamantium is matter-of-factly an element whose atomic structure resembles that of a higher dimension hypersphere, then who knows what sort of effects it would have on the physical properties of the material as perceived in our mere four-dimensional space-time?
- Upsidaisium (from Rocky and Bullwinkle)
Yeah, I bet you weren’t expecting a reference from Rocky and Bullwinkle, am I right? Though obscure, the element Upsidaisium represents one of the longest story arcs from early 1960’s cartoon. In short, Bullwinkle comes into some inheritance from his uncle that includes the ownership of an Upsidaisium mine. This mineral is highly sought after by the US government as well as the main antagonists, Boris and Natasha (Russian spies, what else? It’s the sixties) So what exactly does Upsidaisium do?
Well, Upsidaisium epitomizes anti-gravity matter. So instead of being bound to the Earth by its gravitational pull, rather is goes the opposite direction and flies away into space. So, how the hell is there an Upsidaisium mine?!?!
Well duh. It’s situated above the clouds in a mountain that hovers in the air due to the high amounts of Upsidaisium it contains.
There are so many fascinating questions that arise in my head that I don’t know where to begin.
First. Anti-gravity. Under Einstein’s general relativity gravity is the result of curvature in the geometry of spacetime. Antigravity matter as Upsidaisium would have the property to go against the force felt by ordinary matter as a result of this spacetime curvature. This can get really really complicated really quickly so I will try to be succinct because one could probably write a whole book about the science required to make Upsidaisium feasible. In short, (I’m sorry I’m quoting Wikipedia here. Sue me.)
“Assuming that all three concepts of mass are equivalent the gravitational interactions between masses of arbitrary sign can be explored, based on the Einstein field equations and the Equivalence principle:
- Positive mass attracts both other positive masses and negative masses.
- Negative mass repels both other negative masses and positive masses.
For two positive masses, nothing changes and there is a gravitational pull on each other causing an attraction. Two negative masses would repel because of their negative inertial masses. For different signs however, there is a push that repels the positive mass from the negative mass, and a pull that attracts the negative mass towards the positive one at the same time.“
For Upsidaisium’s properties to make sense we would need to make sense of general relativity and even try to formulate the much sought after unified field theory that harmonizes all four fundamental forces of nature to understand the intricate properties of negative mass.
Second, how did Upsidaisium become so localized in one spot, namely a hovering mountain above the clouds?
The first thought that popped into my mind was that relatively recently in Earth’s history (i.e. in the past few hundred thousand years), a meteor or a comet packed with Upsidaisium, but also enough regular matter to justify it giving in to Earth’s spacetime curvature and crash into it. During the violent collision between the extraterrestrial object and Earth’s surface, the Upsidaisium could have been distributed among a relatively small area and shallow enough so that in the next few thousand years, the anti-gravity properties of Upsidaisium would have started propelling it among all the matter attached to it, towards the sky. Initially I imagine a mountain would have started to arise from the crater left by the collision and finally separate from the surface and slowly soar higher as more ‘regular matter’ fell from the hovering mountain down to the ground.
This also raises the question about the origins of the meteor/comet which I have no idea how to answer.
- Phlogiston (from real life)
Okay, I’m kind of cheating with this, but not really. Phlogiston was is an imaginary element conceived by REAL LIFE SCIENTISTS…. in the 1600’s. Before the conception of thermodynamics to account for physical processes such as heat, entropy and what have you, some scientists believed that heat was no more than an element that was released during combustion processes. The Phlogiston theory was also devised to account for oxidation processes like rusting (without ever mentioning oxidation of course because oxygen as an element wouldn’t be discovered till Joseph Priestley’s work in the 1770s where he isolated gaseous oxygen by heating mercury oxide.
The theory as such postulated that:
“In general, substances that burned in air were said to be rich in phlogiston; the fact that combustion soon ceased in an enclosed space was taken as clear-cut evidence that air had the capacity to absorb only a finite amount of phlogiston. When air had become completely phlogisticated it would no longer serve to support combustion of any material, nor would a metal heated in it yield a calx; nor could phlogisticated air support life. Breathing was thought to take phlogiston out of the body.”
In other words. Before the discovery of oxygen, phlogiston was a bit like its substitute.
The theory started to unravel when experiments revealed that some metals gained mass after combustion even though they were supposed to have lost all of their phlogiston. It was in fact just a few years later after Priestley’s experiments that Antoine Lavoisier showed that combustion requires the addition of a gas with mass (i.e. oxygen) to take place. Thus, the imaginary element of phlogiston was perished into exile by the scientific community. It is only a matter of time before the theory is revived by Flat-Earthers.
- Mithril (from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and other tales)
“Mithril! All folk desired it. It could be beaten like copper, and polished like glass; and the Dwarves could make of it a metal, light and yet harder than tempered steel. Its beauty was like to that of common silver, but the beauty of mithril did not tarnish or grow dim.” – Gandalf
As Gandalf describes to us the properties of Mithril, some interesting albeit tentative connections can be made about its chemistry. Lighter and harder than steel tells us a few different things. Firstly it is not as compact as steel and secondly, the electrical properties of the bonds between the mithril atoms allow for a much more efficient diffusion or dispersion of the kinetic energy transferred onto the material by an outer shock. Furthermore, Gandalf’s comment about the mithril’s beauty implies that the substance has a very high reduction potential like that of gold, i.e. it does not readily oxidize.
Putting all of this information together may be tricky but here is what I make of it. When metal atoms agglutinate to form a cohesive metallic substance, they bind with so-called metallic bonds. These loosely bind the atoms together and allow them to agglomerate their electrons together into bands where the electrons can move freely, giving rise to the metal’s conductivity as well as their high densities. Since mithril is much lighter than these metals I’d propose that mithril atoms were not bound by metallic bonds, but something different. The binding could encapsulate something abstract that the chemistry of the periodic table as we know it, hasn’t reached such as the usage of so-called g-, or h-orbitals or maybe something akin to Rydberg matter. The binding of the atoms has to allow the atoms to be recently dispersed in the matter, yet bound together and able to allow absorbed energy by, say the blow from an orc’s trident, to be dissipated by converting it into kinetic energy of mithril’s atoms which would then carry the energy to their surroundings. I would imagine that when Frodo was struck by the orc in the mines of Moria he was more surprised to find that instead of dying his mithril coat just warmed up a bit.
According to tolkiengateway.net, Tolkien was well aware of the difficulty of synthesizing various metals and a few comparisons have been drawn with other metals with similar characteristics to mithril, such as titanium, aluminum, and magnesium. But… come on! Those metals don’t do that. That would be impossible!
- Tiberium (from the Command and Conquer universe)
For anyone who has followed the Command and Conquer gaming series this may not come as a surprise at all. The concept, history, how the substance’s existence drives the plot of the series in general and the fact that scientists from MIT were consulted in bringing to life the physical processes that govern its influence on its environment… this imaginary element stands no comparison.
Let’s start at the beginning. The first C&C game was released in 1995 when I was at the tender age of eight years old. (See Mom, video game violence didn’t destroy my brain!) In the game, a meteor strikes the earth and from that collision emerges a strange green-hewed crystal that starts spreading quickly and has catastrophic influences on its surroundings, not to mention the human body. Named Tiberium after its discovery near the Tiber river in Italy, the material leeches metals and other heavy minerals out of the soil, concentrating them in crystals which can be easily collected and processed into easy to use resources. Thusly it becomes an opportunity for any growing economy but that’s where things start to become bleak. Enter The Brotherhood of Nod, a multi-national terrorist organization that starts researching and harvesting Tiberium to accumulate their wealth and build their own military to carry out their agenda. In response, The United Nations sanction the Global Defense Initiative (GDI) to counteract and combat Nod. By utilizing the wealth stored in the spreading Tiberium resources, the GDI starts building its army and starts an all-out global war with Nod.
This, however, is only the beginning. The game series extends between the years of 1995 and approx. 2077 and in that time period Tiberium covers much of the entire planet, transforming and adapting flora and fauna to its extraterrestrial nature. Spores and gases are emitted by Tiberium-mutated plant life and make the earth almost uninhabitable for humans. Meanwhile as the games continue, the war rages on between the GDI and Nod factions. Militaries are upgraded, most of the research worldwide is now solely focused on Tiberium and its use for warfare. The planet is in its death throes.
Then comes the kicker. The original meteor that seeded the earth with Tiberium was in all likelihood the spark to initiate terraforming the earth for an alien race that is completely dependent on Tiberium, named ‘Scrin’.
There is so much that could be said about all of this. How a meteor jumpstarts what looks to be the end of humanity. How this little event amplified all the political distrust in the world to create a divisive us-or-them attitude amongst the whole of humanity. How the military complex is instantly taken to the nth degree and all focus is put on war instead of trying to rid the earth of what is obviously killing it.
But I must digress. What I want to focus on is the science of Tiberium and the fact that MIT researcher were brought in to give a (let’s say) viable explanation as to how Tiberium functions.
“Tiberium is a dense “dynamic proton lattice” held together by exotic heavy particles. When Tiberium comes into contact with other matter, the heavy particles randomly collide with the nuclei of the target matter, smashing it to pieces (in the case of smaller nuclei) or incrementally knocking off protons or neutrons (in the case of heavier nuclei). Tiberium captures a fraction of the protons that are ejected during this collision process and incorporates them into its own structure, thus transmuting matter into more Tiberium. Whenever one of the heavy particles—a muon or tauon—collides with an atomic nucleus, fission occurs, which results in the production of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation as well as other forms of electromagnetic radiation (like infrared). During the transmutation process, nuclei that Tiberium has come into contact with may be changed into nuclei with different (usually fewer) numbers of protons or neutrons.” — Mike Verdu, Living with Tiberium
In short. Tiberium contains exotic particles that catalyze nucleosyntheses that are inherently destructive to organic tissue. In the games, Tiberium undergoes further evolutions, different types of Tiberium come to light, its effects on humans, plant, animals, the soil itself become more pronounced. Basically, Tiberium is the ultimate harbinger of death. And it is my favorite imaginary element.
I highly recommend reading the Command and Conquer Wiki or better yet, play the games. The complex and utterly crazy story line that drives this real-time strategy war game is absolutely amazing.