11 Words for Fictional Substances
By Mark Peters
In science fiction, fantasy, and superhero stories, people frequently do the impossible—fly at light speed, travel through time, be Superman, etc. The creators of such stories sometimes try to do something even more impossible by scientifically explaining such impossibilities. Fortunately, there’s an amusing real-world byproduct: absurd terms for pseudo-scientific substances. Here are 11 of the most useful and ludicrous.
This is one of the silliest substances ever named, but it does answer a question asked by many children and stoners: How do the Transformers transform? Duh, due to transformium! This substance was introduced in the 2014 movie Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Just as no one in the multiverse really needed to know how the Transformers transform, few Star Wars fans were clamoring for an explanation as to why some folks were strong with the force and others were just meh. But Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace provided this unessential answer to an unasked question: The culprit was midi-chlorians, which are micro-critters in the blood of people really good at swinging a light saber. Who would have thought potential Jedi knights, like potential disease carriers, could be determined by a blood test?
Supreme is an analogue of Superman, with a similar power set and cast of supporting characters. But one different element is literally an element: Supreme gains his powers thanks to exposure as a child to supremium, which arrived, like many of these substances, via meteorite. The Supremium turned little Ethan Crane’s hair white and gave him Superman-level powers, while fueling many wacky stories, including some by the great Alan Moore.
Wolverine’s claws are one of the deadliest weapons of any superhero or supervillain, partly because the damn things can’t be broken. Why not? Because the claws (and his entire skeleton) are laced with adamantium, a Marvel Universe substance that’s been around since 1969 and Avengers #66. Bad guys are also fond of the stuff: humanity-killing, self-replicating robot Ultron is made of adamantium.
5. PYM PARTICLES
Discovered by scientist Henry Pym, these molecule-majiggers are quite useful. They allowed Pym to get tiny as Ant-Man, then enormous as Giant Man. Pym particles were introduced back in 1962’s Tales to Astonish #27, which was also the debut of Ant-Man.
These chunks of the exploded planet Krypton are one of the most popular McGuffins in comic books, and it’s easy to see why. Since Kryptonite weakens Superman, it gives less super foes a fighting chance. But that’s just green Kryptonite. There’s also red, blue, white, gold, and other types, all of which have different effects on Superman, depending on that month’s plot. Kryptonite is also a very common term for someone’s weakness, particularly in sports: Recent news articles refer to Holly Holm as Ronda Rousey’s Kryptonite, Steph Curry as LeBron James’s Kryptonite, and the Philadelphia Eagles as the New York Giants’ Kryptonite. Like Jimmy Olsen, Kryptonite did not debut in the comics: It originated in 1943 in the Adventures of Superman radio show.
Any Star Trek fan should recognize this substance in the form of dilithium crystals, the substance that regulates the Enterprise's warp drive system. In the 1966 episode "Mudd’s Women," the important element was just lithium, but in 1967, that was changed to dilithium. According to the Star Trek Encyclopedia, the change was made because the show’s science advisor was concerned that lithium was a real element, while dilithium was made up and could be given whatever properties the writers wanted. Now, scientists are trying to create real-life "dilithium crystals" (actually lithium-6) to power a warp drive that would take us to Mars.
This word for an ultra-strong metal was apparently coined by J. R. R. Tolkien while writing The Lord of the Rings. The first-known use is in a Tolkien letter from 1944: “Sauron shows various tokens (such as the mithril coat) to prove that he has captured Frodo.” This term often pops in combinations, such as mithril-ring and mithril-coat, but rarely mithril-underoos.
Though it often appears in fiction, this is a term from actual science—well, hypothetical science. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, a tachyon is “a hypothetical particle which travels faster than light (and whose rest mass is therefore an imaginary number).” Hypothetical is a useful word when scientists are discussing something that doesn’t exist. The term was first found in a 1967 article from The Physical Review: A Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, and an adjective form popped up in the same journal in 1970: “A and B use tachyonic antitelephones to communicate backwards in time.”
Captain America’s shield is one of the most wondrous weapons in comics, capable of knocking out bad guys, deflecting bullets, and bouncing around a room like a Frisbee. This combination of strength and flexibility is thanks to vibranium—a substance found primarily in Wakanda, a country found only in the Marvel Universe. Vibranium has been discussed in comics since 1966’s Daredevil #13, but in the Marvel Universe it’s been around since a meteorite landed about 10,000 years ago.
Like Captain America’s shield, Thor’s hammer Mjolnir is an extremely iconic superhero weapon—and it has its own made-up ingredient: uru. Uru is a type of metal that is not only super-strong, but good at holding enchantments such as the hoodoo Odin put into Mjolnir. In Jack Kirby Collector #44, Thor co-creator (along with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) Larry Lieber said, “I made up Uru hammer. I remember calling it that. I wanted something short so it would be easy to letter. It was off-beat and sounded like a foreign language.” By the hammer of Thor, uru was a fine coinage.