By Michael Pearson
From adamantium to dilithium, unobtanium, and vibranium, fictional elements have long played key roles in stories meant to help explain our world or just keep us entertained.
As the Georgia Institute of Technology winds down its celebration of the International Year of the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements, the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts’ School of Literature, Media, and Communication (LMC) has partnered with the College of Sciences and the Georgia Tech Library to narrate how those elements have figured over millennia of human storytelling.
“ASTOUNDING ELEMENTS,” an exhibit in Crosland Tower opening on Nov. 7, celebrates elements – real and fictional – and looks back at some events and artifacts from activities led by the College of Sciences.
“What will be most exciting for most people is to realize not just how central elements are to contemporary storytelling, but how long ago humans have speculated about the fundamental building blocks of the universe and how we might use them to create both wonderful and terrible futures,” said Lisa Yaszek, an LMC professor who specializes in science fiction and helped create the exhibit.
The exhibit features elements in science fiction; periodic table makeovers by students in the College of Design’s School of Industrial Design; elements-inspired art submitted to the Spring 2019 Art Crawl organized by the Georgia Tech Office of the Arts; and much more.
“The periodic table is one of humanity’s most consequential scientific achievements,” said College of Sciences Dean Susan Lozier. “The College of Sciences is proud to have led Georgia Tech’s yearlong celebration and delighted to have engaged many partners along the way. The Institute’s dazzling quilt of contributions is a fitting tribute to the 150th anniversary of one of the world’s most recognizable scientific icons.”
From Adamantium to Infinity Stones: Researching Elements in the Science Fiction Lab
Material for the elements in science fiction came from largely from research by Lily Steele (LMC 2019), Yaszek’s former student. As Steele scoured resources in the LMC’s Science Fiction Lab, she uncovered dozens of examples of elements in ancient lore and beyond: celestial bronze from Greek mythology, imperial gold of Roman stories, and Atlantis’ mythical orichalcum.
In science fiction, examples run the gamut from eadhamite – an element that makes roads smooth – in the 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes; to supermanium, which composed the Man of Steel’s Supermobile; to the more recent unobtanium, popularized by Avatar, and Black Panther’s vibranium.
Even the "infinity stones" wielded by Thor, Thanos, and Star-Lord in various Marvel Comics publications and films are described as elemental building blocks of the universe, according to Steele.
“As science fiction has progressed, it’s gone from elements being used for building things, maybe as weapons, to things that are a little more weird, like time travel or elements that bend space,” she said.
One peculiar example: Terry Pratchett’s narrativium – the elemental underpinning of all stories.
Then there are the ones Steele wouldn’t ever mind hearing about again.
“Glassite,” she deadpanned. “It’s literally. Just. Glass.”
Always Something New
Many people don’t think much about elements, Yaszek said.
“They seem such a fundamental part of life that they almost seem un-noteworthy. But once you start to look at them in science fiction you realize elements aren’t just the building blocks of our own worlds. They are the building blocks of fictional worlds, too.”
That’s because “science fiction is almost always about something new: a new scientific discovery, a new technological invention,” Yaszek said. “If you want to go faster than light, if you want to have modified bones that are stronger than steel, if you want to have a glass-domed spaceship that's not going to crack in outer space, you have to imagine elements beyond our own world.”
An Elemental Conversation
The Nov. 7 grand opening of “ASTOUNDING ELEMENTS” features a panel discussion Yaszek organized. The panel consists of Milton Davis, an Atlanta science fiction writer and chemist; Amanda Weiss, an assistant professor in the School of Modern Languages and science fiction writer; and College of Sciences professors Deirdre Shoemaker and M.G. Finn.
“This panel will show how people are thinking about and exploring the elements in their work, both in science and science fiction,” Yaszek said.
Davis said much of his work as a chemist has been with compounds, not elements, and as a longtime author of fantasy books, he has had so far had little need for elemental wordplay. But now that he is moving into science fiction and cyberpunk, he is finding more opportunities in the interplay of silicon and carbon with his cybernetically enhanced characters.
“There are so many ways that the elements influence fiction,” he said. “You can talk about almost anything in science fiction and break it down to elements and compounds.”
An Elemental Year
Reconnecting with the periodic table, a cornerstone of scientific inquiry for 150 years, has been the goal of Georgia Tech’s yearlong celebration. Periodic table events – from arts and athletics, to academics and fun – have touched all corners of campus and engaged faculty, staff, students, and Atlanta science fans.
The kickoff event was the Jan. 22 basketball game against Notre Dame, in which fans had a chance to play games with periodic table and element cards. Completing the festivities are a Frontiers in Science lecture on the geopolitics of rare elements, on Nov. 12, and the December episode of “My Favorite Element.”
In between, the School of Music’s laptop orchestra performed a concert featuring an original composition inspired by the periodic table. Students in the School of Industrial Design built prototypes of their reimagining of the periodic table in public spaces. Students attending summer classes attended Halloween in June, a costume party and variety show. First-year students created their own periodic tables. On the first week of the 2019-20 school year, everyone was invited to a campus-wide scavenger hunt for chemical elements.
“Georgia Tech’s celebration has been unique for its 12-month duration, variety, and diverse participation,” said Maureen Rouhi, the College of Sciences’ director of communications and lead for periodic table festivities. “Seeing the periodic table from multiple perspectives has been mind-opening.”