Unobtanium has been used in sci-fi more than once. And it doesn’t get old. It cracks me up every time. In the James Cameron spectacular Avatar, I believe it was supposed to be a sort of room-temperature superconductor. However, I don’t want to talk about unobtanium in the “Avatar-sense.” And honestly, I think how they used the idea of unobtanium in Avatar was a little silly considering the rest of the film took itself so goddamned seriously.
Instead, I want to talk about unobtanium the way it was envisioned in one of the single worst (and one of my favorite) disaster films: The Core. I’m talking about one of the biggest box office bombs of the last eight years. I’m talking about the movie where, mysteriously, the Earth’s core stops spinning (!) causing the Earth’s magnetosphere to stop…being magnetic. Our intrepid heroes, played by Aaron Eckhart and Hillary Swank drill to the center of the planet to set off a nuclear reaction in order to get the core spinning again.
The reason I like this movie is the fact that the “fi” to this movie’s “sci,” the method whereby the film explains itself, actually gave me the giggles for several days after seeing it. You see, whoever wrote this movie knew that the problems involved in digging through to the Earth’s core were fairly insurmountable. Mainly pressure and heat. Lots of both. And so, where films like Journey to the Center of the Earth solve this problem by ignoring it and pretending the Earth’s interior is actually populated with dinosaurs (etc), The Core does something a little different. It trades one science problem for another. Imagine a vessel capable of drilling through the hardest rock, sort of like the Technodrome, only less cheesy. The reason this vessel is not crushed as it delves ever deeper into the mantle, is unobtanium. This hypothetical mineral becomes harder and stronger the more heat and pressure are applied.
Essentially what the filmmakers did was a little literary sleight of hand. They traded one scientific problem for another, and simply ignored the new one completely. Indeed, they did us one better, they hung a lampshade on it by calling it unobtanium. Unobtanium!
And the reason I didn’t roll my eyes at this movie (while I did at Avatar) is the fact that this movie was never (I assume) intended to be taken all that seriously.
In the interests of full disclosure, today’s image is not my own joke. My wife and I both appreciate The Core quite a bit (despite its obvious terribleness). When my wife was shopping for wedding rings, she told me that she wanted to get the unobtanium rings, but the shelf was too high. I’m pretty sure I came close to crapping my pants when she said that. And so, credit for the joke goes to her.
Obviously, unobtanium is a joke. Can’t possibly be real. Or can it? Researchers at Rice University have created a new synthetic material, an alchemical blend of aligned carbon nanotubes and inert polymers, that, when exposed to repeated stress, actually becomes stiffer. I feel no shame in admitting that I almost crapped my pants when I read this article, too.
I mean, think about it. Something that I laughed at as a joke in 2003 is actually sort of possible? The hows and the whys of it are maybe irrelevant to the layperson. Merely the knowledge that a synthetic material can have properties of this nature is astonishing. I guess I do have a few questions about it, though. For instance, what happens if you stop applying stress? Does it lose some of its accumulated strength? And then if you start applying stress again, does the strength return? Does this material have an unlimited capacity for gaining strength? Will there be a point where you start to experience diminishing returns?
I guess those scientists need to get to work.