U – Unobtainium

Twenty letters down, six to go, and it occurs to me that I haven’t really spent that much time talking about my core business – mechanical properties of materials.   I included a good description of the key properties a couple of days ago and I’ve alluded to them here and there.  And at this late stage, I don’t propose to mess with a winning formula.  So, recalling that strength is what we use to measure the load applied to a given cross-section (stress = Load/cross-sectional area), let us take a look at unobtainium.

At first glance, unobtainium might be mistaken for an element actually found in the periodic table, as it sort of looks like one of the elements yet to be named.  We can also hazard a guess that it is a metal, because of the –ium ending (although in “James Cameron’s Avatar” it’s supposed to be a mineral, although we can stretch things a little and suppose that the metal unobtanium is extracted from the mineral that has a complex scientific name that no-one can be bothered to use).

Unobtainium, in fiction, is usually a form of McGuffin, i.e. it is there simply to send hapless heroes off on an all-expenses paid jaunt that they might live through if they are lucky.  The term was actually coined sometime in the 1950s, in the aerospace sector, and usually comes down to the old saw of “cheap, light, strong – you can have any two”.  Sometimes one or other of these properties is replaced with another, say high temperature, or is added to the list.  Most frequently, it comes down to cost and so, for example, titanium was a form of unobtainium because it was not available in the kind of quantities for the kind of price that would make certain products commercially viable.  In some contexts (e.g. sending a man to the Moon), price becomes no object – but unobtainium rears its ugly head, in the shape of competing properties, or simply the unavailability of materials that have the required combination of properties.

A fundamental of unobtainium is usually that it be strong and light in order that less of it can be used – it can carry the high stresses that will be imposed on a smaller cross-section.  One way of thinking about this is, traditionally, to think of the force acting on a stiletto-heel, which is significantly more than that which an elephant exerts on the ground.  Here we see that a stiletto needs to be stronger than an elephant’s leg, although as ever things are rarely as simple as they look in terms of whether the elephant is doing a trick, whether either is running, over what kind of ground and so on.

The term wishalloy is sometimes used as well.  In some contexts the words are used synonymously.  Whilst I have been known to play fast and loose with the English language on occasion, one of the things that I think is important is to look at the ‘value’ of a given word.  In some situations then, you might choose one word over another, because it has more ‘weight’ (or perhaps less), so for example you might use the word horrible and in others hideous – for me at least these carry slightly different connotations despite being nominally synonyms.  Hence the difference between unobtainium and wishalloy, under most circumstances, is that unobtainium is plausible, perhaps even already exists, it’s just that it is in short supply, difficult to manufacture or work with, and one way or another costs the GDP of a small country for less than you actually need for your purposes.  Wishalloy, by contrast, is pure wishful thinking, and probably not physically possible.



###Shameless self-promotion alert###

I recently coined the term wishalkene to denote a polymer with properties currently beyond those available to us for my chapter in the Secret Science of Superheroes, which is due out September this year – set your calendars.

The book was written, more or less, in a weekend…


9 thoughts on “U – Unobtainium

    1. Hi – yes, that is the etymology of unobtainium. It’s completely fictitious and is frequently used in a sarcastic sense when someone proposes something impossible, and the techies respons with, “and what is it going to be made with? Unobtainium?”. The thing is that it might be unobtainable because it is rare/expensive/difficult to extract…and in due course technology might change what is required, or might improve obtainability. Titianium is a good example of this. At one time it was essentially unobtainable, becuase world production was controlled by the former USSR. Times change. The reverse is also true though – something can become unobtainium that was formerly in plentiful supply.


    1. Hi – Thanks for dropping by. Have had a quick look at your site (which looks spiffing, BTW) and will be back to look at you #AtoZchallenge properly when I get a moment. Perhaps an opportunity to collaborate on Artefact?


  1. I wish it were mine! It is an in-joke, of sorts, but one of those that has grown out of very serious conversations by the sort of people that are stereotyped as having very neat hair, very neat moustaches, wear lab coats and, back in the day, would almost certainly have smoked a pipe whilst looking on at the completion of a job well done with quiet satisfaction.


  2. I saw Avatar with a group of friends, and we all sort of groaned when they started talking about unobtainium. It seemed a little too transparent for a fictional material. My one friend whispered, “Well, you’re never going to obtain it… it’s unobtainable!” It wasn’t until much later that I saw the word used unironically in a science article and realized that it’s sort of a placeholder term.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Seriously, when they said the name “unobtainium” in Avatar, I laughed aloud. I swear someone wrote it in the screenplay with the intention of going back later and just never did!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s