Unobtainium. So… what exactly is this stuff?

I will probably damage my reputation by saying that I enjoyed last year’s top-grossing movie Avatar on many levels. Even the science, while highly popularised, did not contravene too many known laws of physics and facts of biology. Except for one thing, and that one thing has bugged me ever since. In hindsight, it’s quite amazing how long I allow stupid trivialities to bug me.

Anyway, Unobtainium.

I mean, seriously? Which script editor worth their salt would leave such an obvious ersatz-name in the finished product? What on Earth were they thinking?

As writers do when the going gets tough, I googled it. Apparently, Unobtainium, also spelled Unobtanium, is jokingly referred to in engineering when there is a need for a material that doesn’t (yet) exist. The term is also used to indicate materials that are extremely rare. In the movie, it’s a MacGuffin. What it does is not important. Only that it is rare and very valuable and thus is the reason for the hero’s quest.

Fine by me. I just wish they called it something else.

But it keeps nagging. There is that scene in the movie, you know, where the evil and hapless company director whose name I’ve already forgotten, picks up the sample that floats above a hollow dish. It makes me wonder what this stuff is. It looks metallic, and it floats. By what mechanism and what would people do with it?

First up, why does it float? It seems to me that it needs the dish to stay up in the air. That would suggest a magnetic field. Aside from the fact that I’m unsure that a bowl-shaped dish would emit the right shape magnetic field to keep an object afloat (I’m thinking it would need to be horseshoe-shaped), I’m wondering what the benefits of such material would be. Given a magnetic field strong enough, many materials could be made to float. Maglev trains work on this principle. The floating capacity would depend on the density of the material, the size of the sample and the strength of the field, and two of these can be varied by the observer. Creating a stronger magnetic field just requires more electricity, negating the value of the material. The repelling force that holds the sample in the air can only be as strong as that induced by the magnetic field, so to stay up, the sample must be very light. It could be a very light-weight, strong material. OK, but is that really valuable enough to raze an entire planet?

Secondly, it could be some sort of anti-gravity material. I’ve thought about how this could work, but am drawing blanks. If, for example, the material consisted of atoms of negative matter, each of these atoms would repel each other (as opposed to attracting each other, which is what regular atoms do), and the material wouldn’t stay together in a clump (hint: this is why we haven’t found any negative matter). But let’s suppose some sort of property existed that rendered the material inert to gravity.

Fine, but why stop at gravity? It’s nothing but a force (actually, it’s an acceleration, but let’s not get too technical). A material cannot know if a force applied to it is the result of gravity or something else. Would this type of Unobtainium resist being pushed or picked up? Ah, but it would only be moved if physically in contact with the object doing the pushing or pulling.

Fine. We have just established that Unobtainium would be an excellent material for making heavy lift, single stage to orbit space ships. Stuff that negates gravity. Woo-hoo!

Except now we’re in orbit. How do we come down in a space ship that wants to go the other way? Er…?

So what about you? What do you think would make an element exceedingly valuable?

P.S. I’m sure there is a short story in some of this. Somewhere.


My thoughts on Avatar

Copied from my personal blog (because WordPress is more searchable):

Here it is then, as promised. I’m not really going to do a review, since it would be very short:

I freaking loved the movie.

I’d just like to comment on some aspects of people’s discussions about it, and try to extrapolate about what messages there could possibly be for fiction, or for SF.

Some caveats:

1. For me, first contact stories are the equivalent of hot chips in fiction: you can wake me up for them. Any book that has some form of alien-human contact I simply *have* to read. I love that stuff.

2. I am a dreamer

3. I am not a Trekkie, and apologise in advance for some stuff I may say below.

So yeah, let’s not repeat all that’s already been said about the wonderful worldbuilding. I just love that stuff. This aspect actually reminded me of Dinotopia, a movie with a non-existent plot that goes on forever, but that’s so incredibly pretty you just have to keep watching. Avatar was clearly made to be pretty. Other movies with that secondary aim come to mind. Dances with Wolves, Out of Africa and Australia.

The plot. Yeah, yeah, enough with the bellyaching about the standard plot. The plot worked, and that is important for something pitched at a large audience. You cannot take undue risks. I think they took a bit of a risk with the overt environmental message, but probably judged the time was right for it.

I dunno. Have you ever watched a movie where halfway through, the plot went in a way where you would have just stood up and walked out? I remember one. I watched this movie called A Japanese Story. The beginning was a lovely, and rather edgy, tale of a Japanese middle manager pretending to be on a business trip to NW Australia (he wasn’t; he’d been sacked). His guide (Toni Colette) drives him around and gradually peels away the truth. It turns into a sightseeing holiday (lovely scenery). And then the dude drowns (I presume it was suicide, but it didn’t think that was adequately supported by the preceding scenes). And I was going WTF WTF WTF WTF?? No resolution, no nothing. Just lengthy grief scenes from his wife and the guide. Total crap for my level of movie enjoyment.

The ‘best’ (most provocative, most emotional, whatever) movie I saw this year was Gran Torino. It, too, ends sadly. I took my daughters, who also had a bit of a WTF reaction to the ending. I thought it was bitterweet, but it’s not a movie which leaves you happy, or, for that matter, satisfied. I thought it was very good, but didn’t enjoy it as much.

Avatar was never intended to be an edgy drama. The plot was risk-free. People said it resembles Dances with Wolves, and that there was a large amount of native American resemblance. I dunno about that. I saw Fern Gully and a large part of the plot had Rio Tinto (a mining company which is screwing people in the highlands of PNG) all over it. It doesn’t matter. This stuff has happened before. This stuff is still happening. This stuff has been the subject of many plots. It was done well enough that: 1. the story worked, 2. the story left a large majority of the audience to walk away so happy that days later, they are still talking about it.

To me, fiction, of any sort, is about immersing the reader and making the reader feel happy. The best books are those where you have an insane wish to dive in and BE one of the characters. For a large percentage of the audience, this movie does just that. I wrote about that here two days ago.

This plot speaks to a lot of people on a very basic human level. It’s chockers with messages, but to most people, the messages are either justified or not noticeable enough to be annoying. Humans rape and pillage. Good on the ones who stand up and put an end to some of it. Show it at Christmas time, and people will love it. Stroke of genius, really. All that was missing, I think, was a donation box outside the cinema with ‘Save the Rainforest’. They would have made thousands.

Anyway, some of the gaffes (which were not many, and not as important as I thought they would be).

The dead brother switcheroo. What is it with film makers that they insist on putting insufficiently educated characters in important roles without any justification? (James Kirk anyone? Oh man! As if the military would allow that sort of cock-arsery). There was no need for the dead brother, plot-wise. I cannot believe that any scientist would accept a non-trained person with an attitude problem in a vitally important project. The solution would have been as easy as enforcing an equal-opportunity law that says that disabled people should make up a percentage of any workforce. The dude’s been injured, can’t be in the regular forces, so he gets a steam course in science and gets slotted into a program three months after it’s started when someone decides to have himself killed. Easy.

Unobtainium. Yeah. The editor who let that placeholder name through deserves to be shot. That said, the element that shall not be named was mentioned only twice in the entire movie, and wasn’t half as cringe-worthy as Star Trek’s red matter (for crying out loud dudes, read the definition of BLACK HOLE before you come up with something as stupidly insane – and store it in a freaking glass cylinder).

The sex. Oh, you say, what sex? Yeah – well, that’s just the problem. It isn’t as if this is a kiddie movie. It’s rated M for crying out loud. If these two blue aliens were mated for life, and you show some scenes that suggest they’re having sex, for crying out loud, show them having sex. Unless, of course, the nerds who programmed this animation don’t know where the bits go. Come on, ya prudes! It was a scene lasting a few seconds. Long enough, because the point was made, but make the freaking point properly.

What I thought was very elegant, plot-wise, was the fact that the military are rent-a-guns. It was the weaselly guy named Parker, with the fat tie, who made the final decision. Now he’s going to have to justify heavy losses to the shareholders, he’ll be sacked, the military will move elsewhere, and the company will lick its wounds. They won’t be back in a hurry, or at least not in that form. Yeah, I loved that, in terms of a lasting solution.

Then again, I’m a dreamer. I love happy endings. And I wish I had a tail.