Ice-Nine and Unobtainium: Why We Dream Up Wonder Materials

Shoutout to Discworld’s Octiron.

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Mar 13 2015, 2:20pm

Unobtainium in Avatar. Image: ​Flickr

This week, Motherboard has been running materials-focused stories as part of our "Building Blocks of Everything" series. We've covered everything from the miracle of graphene to the curse of crude oil. But there's one realm of materials science we have yet to probe, and that's the totally made-up one.

Long before humans actually crafted the technologies that shape our world, we dreamed up fictional materials with magical properties. Even today, science fiction stories frequently hinge on a futuristic-sounding particle or fantastical alloy that makes the plot possible (looking at you, Dune).

For millennia, this imaginative exercise has been a kind of sounding board for our cultural expectations of materials science. The oldest fictional materials ever recorded mostly show up in ancient mythologies, and they definitely tip the cards on some of our most basic insecurities as a species.

Hey girl, can I borrow that girdle? Credit: Guy Head

In Greek mythology, for example, goddess of beauty Aphrodite has a dope girdle made from a magic/gold alloy that makes its wearer irresistible to suitors. The hero Perseus wears a divine helmet that makes him invisible, while the mystical substance ambrosia nourishes the gods and makes human beings immortal.

Perhaps most pertinently, the amped-up properties of feathers and wax in the story of Daedalus and Icarus illustrate both the triumphs of human ingenuity, and its repercussions for those who can't respect it.

Clearly, humans have been obsessed with overcoming loneliness, public scrutiny, and the boundaries of gravity and death from our very roots. Our species has an innate urge to manipulate natural materials into tools that can generate wealth and make life better, and as technological history attests, we're pretty talented at successfully applying it.

However, materials science hasn't just been a series of wins, and sometimes the strikeouts are as interesting as the home runs. The practice of alchemy is probably the ultimate example. From the time of antiquity, people across cultures tried to transform base metals into gold. Many took the idea even further, believing that alchemy was the route to everlasting life.

Alchemical laboratory. Credit Joseph Wright of Derby

Though alchemy is regarded as a pseudoscientific non-starter, those who practiced it made significant contributions to real scientific disciplines, like chemistry, metallurgy, and medicine. The Islamic Golden Age polymath Jābir ibn Hayyān, for example, identified many useful compounds by experimenting with alchemy, and Sir Isaac Newton was as fixated on material transmutation as he was with gravitational laws.

Moreover, nuclear physicists have actually succeeded in turning lead to gold, and many transhumanists believe that the age of bioengineered immortality may be upon us, validating the alchemical dream of securing everlasting life. So, it's not as if the entire venture was fundamentally quixotic, especially in light of the many theoretical "wonder technologies" bandied about in 2015 may never bear fruit.

In contrast, fictional materials and elements will be bundled into our imaginative process for as long as we are recognizably human, and they will always echo our deepest desires and fears. One of the most popular tropes in modern fiction, for example, is the idea of artificial materials capable of wiping out life on Earth.

The best example is probably Kurt Vonnegut's ice-nine, the linchpin of his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle. In an apocalyptic riff on Chekhov's gun, this water-freezing material is introduced early on as an obvious world-ender, functioning as a stand-in for nuclear warfare in the plot. Cobalt Thorium G serves the same narrative purpose in Doctor Strangelove, as does red matter in Star Trek. This trope can even manifest as a personalized threat, as with kryptonite's power over Superman.

Christopher Reeve's Superman is defeated by kryptonite. Credit: YouTube/MiguelitoLoveless.

But just as we enjoy cooking up fictional doomsday materials, so too are we invested in magical materials with life-enhancing potential. Terry Pratchett was an absolute boss at coming up with these types of fictional elements (RIP, you wonderful man). His made-up metal octiron forms the backbone of Discworld, and is thought to be responsible for its magical properties. His "inspiration particles," meanwhile, spark ideas as they pass through sentient brains.

The Marvel Universe is rife with similar miracle materials, include Captain America's vibranium shield, Thor's uru hammer, and Wolverine's adamantium bones. Much like Perseus's helmet or Aphrodite's girdle, these are modern reflections of our collective desires—eternal youth, superior strength, and… magical hammers.

In fact, we come up with so many amazing fictional materials that scientists have coined a catchall term for them: Unobtainium. For decades, this word has been used to describe any product that might be out of a lab's budget. But it caught on in science fiction as well, most famously in Avatar and, less famously, in The Core.

All of this is to say that the history of fictional materials can be just as fascinating as that of real material science. Not only is it sprinkled with countless examples of our most basic dreams and nightmares, it has also nurtured genuine technological development. By telling stories about Icarus's wings or Vonnegut's ice-nine, we anticipate the benefits and ramifications of new materials before they've been invented.

Not to mention, imagining fantastical materials is really fun, and creates instant narrative tension in a pinch. So go forth and dream up your own version of unobtainium.

This story is part of The Building Blocks of Everything, a series of science and technology stories on the theme of materials. Check out more here: http://motherboard.tv/building-blocks-of-everything