Phone Booth Friday: Superhero Chemistry

Today’s Phone Booth Friday post is all about science, or more specifically elements and chemistry. Now, I’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of blowback recently in the social media commentariat about how it’s not cool to say that you love science, when you’re not actually a scientist. If you’re just someone who enjoys reading about things like space exploration or physics in popular publications, then geeking out over some discovery you find fascinating is apparently bad form. So before I get into the meat of today’s post, I will simply say as an initial matter that while it’s true watching a NOVA episode on the Valley of the Kings does not make you an Egyptologist, it’s only fair to point out that being able to cite the stats of a particular college football player because you happen to watch him play on television every week doesn’t even make you so much as a benchwarmer for Notre Dame, either.

Alright? Then let’s move on, those of you who are still with me.

Earlier this week I was pleased to come across this truly, deeply nerdy post on the Periodic Table of Superhero Elements. In it, the authors comb through the DC, Marvel, and other comic universes to list those fictional substances which have caused an impact on the lives of many of the characters we know, both for good and for bad. In doing so, they may also be revealing why it is that the superhero genre seems to be able to infinitely expand as it does, thanks to our acceptance of the ever-changing aspects of science and technology.

Most of the superheroes we’re familiar with have their origins either on another planet, as a result of interaction with someone from another planet, or they have undergone some kind of mutation as a result of an experiment or accident. Even the ones who are just earthlings with extraordinary talents and resources, like Batman or Ironman, hone and improve their abilities through the study of science and technology. It’s interesting then, in reviewing this superhero periodic table, to note how often something as basic as a particular element – albeit a fictional one – can have a significant impact on the lives of these larger-than-life characters.

Kryptonite, for obvious reasons my least favorite element, is very well-known, even among those who aren’t really fans of the superhero genre. Although it does not exist in real life, when someone refers to something as “my kryptonite”, we all understand immediately that they are identifying a particular weakness that they have. Oddly enough, in real life “krypton” itself is one of the noble gases, rather than a long-gone planet, and is used in lighting and photography.

Sometimes these fictional elements don’t have a physical effect on our hero or heroine directly, but rather aid them in some way. Vibranium, for example, is the key component of Captain America’s iconic shield, while Amazonium is forged to make Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets. The properties of these substances are determined by the writers of the stories, of course, and some of these can a bit far-fetched indeed.

Nevertheless, we always suspend our disbelief regarding fictional elements such as these, and don’t seem to give much thought to the fact that many of the things we see in a superhero film, for example, are not actually possible on a scientific level – at least, not yet. I suspect that part of the reason why we’re willing to accept these things is because of science fact, even though in the superhero world we are looking at science fiction. In real life, we have come to accept that science leads to new discoveries of unknown substances and elements all the time, with possible new chemical properties and practical applications, as well as risks and dangers.

Consider the actual periodic table of elements and chemistry itself, which you probably had to memorize in high school. That grid layout of numbered and stacked boxes, as most of us would recognize it, first appeared nearly a century ago now, but it has grown considerably in size since that time as new elements have been discovered. The most recent of these, fierovium, livermorium, and ununseptium, have only been named and accepted by the scientific community within the last five years.

Who knows what the table may look like a century from now, as science advances?  What elements will there be, and how may we be able to use them in things like chemical applications?  Things like this make science perpetually exciting, frankly, even when you’re not a Nobel Prize nominee, but just someone who has a big imagination.  And it shows that the hero can just as easily have a great mind, as be able to toss the bad guys about like paper bags.

So for those of you who enjoy the world of superheroes, whether you are a full-blown collector and cosplayer, or whether you just enjoy catching the odd film or TV show when it’s on, go right ahead and enjoy learning about science. No, taking an interest in science does not make you a nuclear chemist. Yet by appreciating the study of science, and indeed encouraging the study of it among the young people of your acquaintance, you not only open a wider world of knowledge and lifetime learning for yourself, you also can help show others that studying science is not a chore, but actually rather heroic – in an elemental sort of way.

kryptonite

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One thought on “Phone Booth Friday: Superhero Chemistry

  1. Here are two more bogus elements for you: Someone coined the term “baloneyium” (derived from baloney) to describe the element of truth-stretching, implausibility, or outright hogwash a reader would have to accept in order for a science fiction or fantasy story to work. Closely related to this is handwavium, (from a wave of the hand), a pseudo-scientific explanation for something that allows the story to overlook or ignore something that would be a scientific impossibility in real life.

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