A recent blog post about wormholes reminded me of that moment while I sat in the theater watching Avatar and they named the mineral that they were on that planet to mine — Unobtainium.
I was the only person in the theater to laugh. Was this funny? Not directly. Using the term unobtainium started in the sciences when a element was needed to fulfill an experiment, but that element was impossible to obtain or use. It’s also been used in SciFi by Larry Niven and others. I appreciated its use in the movie, but apparently nobody else thought it was funny.
I’m a geek. What can I say?
What is unobtainium? Wikipedia defines it as:
In engineering, fiction, or thought experiments, unobtainium is any extremely rare, costly, or physically impossible material needed to fulfill a given design for a given application. The properties of any particular unobtainium depend on the intended use. For example, a pulley made of unobtainium might be massless and frictionless. However, if used in a nuclear rocket, unobtainium would be light, strong at high temperatures, and resistant to radiation damage. The concept of unobtainium is often applied flippantly or humorously.
I also blogged about it in July 2008 when discussing the movie The Core, a movie that’s been panned by critics and audiences alike, but I also appreciated it’s use of the term unobtaninium in the movie. It’s a word that says to me: “Yes, I know it’s a silly word, but we’re asking you to suspend your disbelief and go with it.”
Is unobtanium the same in The Core as in Avatar? No. In The Core, it’s the metal used for the hull of the ship so it wouldn’t melt when going to the core of the earth. Handy, that fictional metal that does the impossible. In Avatar, its a mineral that has magnetic properties, or something. I wasn’t clear on it’s definite qualities, but perhaps that was done on purpose. Whatever it is, it’s rare, nearly impossible to obtain, and worth a lot of money.
There are other such terms in SciFi. Some are theoretical in real sciences as well as fiction. Some might say faster than light (FTL) travel for spaceships is impossible, or a type of unobtainium.
What about Superman’s kryponite?
Or Wolverine’s adamantium?
Have you read or watched a story with unobtainium?
Or, do you like seeing this kind of “in-joke” in a movie or story?
This slightly revised tidbit was originally posted at The Raven Happy Hour.