Using Fictional Elements for Chemistry Instruction

Steven Murov

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, Modesto Junior College

Modesto, CA

 

Films and the literature[1] abound with descriptions and applications of make-believe elements, compounds and mixtures.  In one instance, Donald Duck gave a formula for methylene before the existence of methylene had been confirmed.[2]  An extensive list of fake materials[3] has been posted along with at least three “periodic” tables of fake materials.[4]  Fictional materials with educational applications have been discussed.[5]  Although fictional, these materials provide stimulating material that could be useful for pedagogical purposes.  While these fictional materials include such intriguing names as unobtainium, afraidium (a bright yellow metal that tastes like chicken)3a, bolognium,  bombastium, and jumbonium3, this article will focus on only three of fake materials:  dilithium, kryptonite and vibranium.  Descriptions of the properties of these make-believe materials are notable3 but include minimal quantitative data.  However, it is still possible to create interesting questions for students that can be used to increase understanding of chemistry concepts.

 

 1. Granted that these materials are fictional, is it still appropriate to change or misuse the meaning of chemistry terms such as element and isotope to characterize these substances? 

 

2. The fictional materials have been arranged in “Periodic” tables.4

a. Explain why the word periodic is a part of the title of the traditional table of elements.[6]

b. Is it appropriate to use the word “periodic” in the titles of tables4 of fictional substances?

 

3. In Star Trek, the starship Enterprise is said to be powered by dilithium crystals.

a. Using atomic orbitals, explain why the halogens, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen are diatomic. 

b. Considering the atomic orbitals of lithium, would you expect lithium to be diatomic (Li2) in the gas phase?

c. According to the Internet, are lithium and/or iodine diatomic in the solid state?

d. Nuclear fusion research is ongoing.  Some of the proposed reactions utilize an isotope of lithium – lithium 6.[7]  Is it a stretch to think dilithium refers to lithium-6?[8]

e. Is it conceivable that nuclear fusion could propel the Enterprise to greater than light speed?

f. The Warp drive apparently does not use nuclear fusion but employs a matter – antimatter reactor that utilizes dilithium.  Could this reactor provide Warp speed?

g. According to the literature, dilithium is 2<5>6dilithium 2<:>1 diallosilicate 1:9:1 heptoferranide.[9]  Another source claims dilithium is not related to lithium and has the symbol Dt and an atomic mass of 87.  Do these claims make this discussion a moot point?

 

4. In Superman, kryptonite is supposed to be Superman’s Achilles’ heel rendering him basically powerless but kryptonite is harmless at least short term to humans.   Most commonly it is described as a green crystal but many colored forms with differing properties have been reported.10   Superman stories contain three very different formulations for kryptonite:


source

Description of kryptonite

New Adventures of Superman

A material with atomic number 126 and half-life of 250,000 years.[10]

Superman III

Richard Pryor’s (portraying a computer scientist) analysis of kryptonite revealed a mixture of 15.08% plutonium, 18.06% tantalum, 27.71% xenon, 24.02% promethium, 10.62% dialium,[11] 3.94% mercury, 0.57% unknown. 

Superman Returns

The formula given for kryptonite is sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide with fluorine.[12]

 

a. Does it make sense for kryptonite to have different formulations?

b. Is it possible that kryptonite can have different colors?[13]

c. Would the “Pryor” kryptonite be harmless to humans?

d. Is the suffix ite in kryptonite appropriate for any of the three formulations?

e. Is a half-life of 250,000 years appropriate for an element with atomic number 126?[14]

 

5.  Several Marvel productions including the recent Black Panther discuss substantial use of the “element” vibranium.  Two “ isotopes” that have sharply contrasting properties have been described.3,[15]  While the movies do not apparently assign atomic number and mass values to vibranium, t-shirt companies have taken the liberty to assign the values[16] below:

 

Vibranium atomic number

Atomic mass (g/mol)

13

19.66

66

Not given

76

194.1

119

196.67

213

196.6

310

194.1

 

a. Do isotopes generally have significantly different chemical, physical or nuclear properties? 

b. Critically evaluate (consider proton to neutron ratios and compare to periodic table values) each of the values.  Two of the atomic numbers appear to have impossible atomic mass values.  Explain.

c. There is some consistency above with the values of atomic mass.   The four similar values yield an average atomic mass of 195.3.  Which, if any, of the atomic numbers makes the most sense for an atomic mass of 195 and why? 

d. Where should vibranium be placed in the periodic table?

e. The 196 values indicate isotopes exist[17] but the 194.1 values also are consistent with isotopes (consider the atomic mass of gold).  Explain these claims.

 

 

 

 

Admittedly, this author has also contributed to the lore of make-believe elements.   In an early edition of a lab book, a problem that involved an atomic mass calculation of the element Modestonium (Mt) was included.[18]  However, a few years later, element 109 was discovered and named Meitnerium and assigned the symbol Mt in honor of the great theoretical chemist, Lise Meitner.  As a result, the symbol in the atomic mass calculation problem was changed to Mm[19] (an element with a colorful electron shell and a tasty nucleus) in later editions.   

 

In addition to providing interesting class and homework exercises, make-believe materials are well suited for exhibits.  Suggestions for use as a stand-alone display[20] and as part of a several station chemistry exhibit[21] have been published.

 

[1] At the risk of starting a debate, comics will be considered a form of literature.

[2] https://www.uky.edu/Projects/Chemcomics/html/dd_15_2_n.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_elements,_materials,_isotopes_and_subatomic_particles

[4] a.  https://www.bodycote.com/fictional-metals/  b.  https://mightymega.com/2013/08/28/interactive-periodic-table-of-fictional-elements/  c.  https://shewalkssoftly.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/periodicfinalweb.jpg

[5] a. J.Ober and T. Krebs, J. Chem. Educ., 2009, 86 (10), p 1141  b.  https://listosaur.com/science-a-technology/10-fictional-elements-from-the-entertainment-world/ c. S. Collins and L. Appleby, J. Chem. Educ., 2018, 95 (7), pp 1243–1244,  d.  R. Hudson, J. Chem. Educ., 1987, 64 (12), p 1039.  e. J. Kakalios, Hollywood Chemistry, 2013, pp 215-227.

[6] For a recent educational exercise involving the periodic table, see:  A. Hoffman and M. Hennessy, J. Chem. Educ., 2018, 95 (2), pp 281–285.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aneutronic_fusion

[8] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/ed067p277.3

[9] a. http://eng.ussmatrix.org/dilithium.html b.  R. Sternbach, and M. Okuda, Star Trek:  The Next Generation Technical Manual, 1991, Pocket Books, p.60.

[10]https://books.google.com/books?id=D8DDZKiOcc4C&pg=PA1413&dq=lois+and+clark+the+new+adventures+of+superman+kryptonite+126&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwijw8uiso3cAhVOS60KHVJVDYoQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=lois%20and%20clark%20the%20new%20adventures%20of%20superman%20kryptonite%20126&f=false

[11] Dialium is a genus of legume in the Fabaceae family but it is unclear if Pryor’s Dialium refers to this definition or perhaps a bar of soap.  For the unknown, Pryor substituted tar presumably from a cigarette.

[12] A compound called Jadarite [LiNaSiB3O7(OH)] corresponding to this formula (less fluorine) has been discovered in Russia but Jadarite does not have the properties of Superman’s kryptonite.

[13] a. http://superman.wikia.com/wiki/Kryptonite b. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kryptonite c.  https://www.quora.com/What-is-Kryptonite-made-of d. https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/23022/is-kryptonite-made-of-the-element-krypton

[14] a. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_of_stability b. https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/beyond-element-118-the-next-row-of-the-periodic-table/9400.article

c. http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/magicnumbers2.htm

[15] https://www.overthinkingit.com/2016/08/25/the-structure-of-vibranium/

[16] For example, using Google images, search for “Vibranium symbol.”

[17] S. Murov, Chem 13 News, March, 2010.  “Promoting Insight:  Atomic Mass.”

[18] S. Murov and B. Stedjee, Experiments in Basic Chemistry, Wiley, 3rd ed., 1994, p 275.

[19] a. S. Murov and B. Stedjee, Experiments and Exercise in Basic Chemistry, Wiley, 7th ed., 2009, p 317  b. http://exercises.murov.info/ex3-2.htm problem 32.

[20] http://murov.info/EM-st22.pdf

[21] a. S. Murov and A. Chavez, J. Chem. Educ., 2017, 94 (10), pp 1571–1579,  b. http://murov.info/EM-TOC.htm

 

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