Fictional Elements, Part 1

Do you remember the movie Avatar?  Do you remember the precious metal the humans were mining for?  They called it unobtainium, which is the stupidest name any precious metal could have.  I mean… you’re never going to obtain it!

You'll never obtain it.

But lately I’ve been studying the periodic table of elements, and it turns out there are a bunch of elements with names like ununseptium or ununoctium.  And scientists are searching for elements 119 and 120, to be named ununennium and unbinilium.

Suddenly, the name unobtainium seems almost believable.  Then I did a little more research, and to my surprise found that unobtainium is a real thing!  Or at least a real term.

When scientists or engineers need a special material with specific properties, but the material does not exist, they call it unobtainium.  It’s the stuff that will magically solve whatever problem they’re working on.  They name is a placeholder until the required material is discovered or invented.

Science if full of stupid and inaccurate names, but once people get used to those names it’s hard to change them.  Planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets.  Gluons and glueballs have nothing to do with glue.  Maybe Avatar’s unobtainium is another example.  They discovered a material that fit some specific purpose (like levitating mountains), and the placeholder name stuck.

Tomorrow, Mass Effect’s Element Zero.

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