Friday, September 18, 2015

CMP and materials in science fiction

Apologies for the slower posting frequency.  Other obligations (grants, research, teaching, service) are significant right now.

I thought it might be fun to survey people for examples of condensed matter and materials physics as they show up in science fiction (and/or comics, which are fantasy more than hard SF).  I don't mean examples where fiction gets science badly wrong or some magic rock acts as a macguffin (Infinity Stones, Sankara stones) - I mean cases where materials and their properties are thought-provoking.

A couple of my favorites:
  • scrith, the bizarre material used to construct the Ringworld.  It's some exotic material that has 40% opacity to neutrinos without being insanely dense like degenerate matter.
  • From the same author, shadow square wire, which is an absurdly strong material that also doubles as a high temperature superconductor.  (Science goof in there:  Niven says that this material is also a perfect (!) thermal conductor.  That's incompatible with superconductivity, though - the energy gap that gives you the superconductivity suppresses the electronic contribution to thermal conduction.  Ahh well.)
  • Even better, from the same author, the General Products Hull, a giant single-molecule structure that is transparent in the visible, opaque to all other wavelengths, and where the strength of the atomic bonds is greatly enhanced by a fusion power source.
  • Vibranium, the light, strong metal that somehow can dissipate kinetic energy very efficiently.  (Like many materials in SF, it has whatever properties it needs to for the sake of the plot.  Hard to reconcile the dissipative properties with Captain America's ability to bounce his shield off objects with apparently perfect restitution.)
  • Old school:  cavorite, the H. G. Wells wonder material that blocks the gravitational interaction.
What are your favorite examples?


Anonymous said...

There's Carolinum in "The World Set Free"

Anonymous said...


Douglas Natelson said...

Both good ones. I love ice-nine. That was the first thing that came to mind when I heard a theorist give a talk once about the idea that we may be in only a local minimum of the vacuum state, and that it could be possible to "collapse the false vacuum".

Another one that occurred to me: The frozen gas-excimer lasing medium from the movie Real Genius. The only 80s comedy that featured the phrase "As soon as we apply a field, we couple to a state that is radiatively coupled to the ground state."

Anonymous said...

Unobtainium, from Avatar (creating floating rocks).

Anonymous said...


Sorry, bad joke.

David Brown said...

"Materials science in science fiction", Wikipedia

Douglas Natelson said...

David Brown - Thanks for the link (guess I should've looked in wikipedia first), and the Mouse That Roared reference. Forgot about that one.

Alaister said...

Graphene also has high thermal conductivity.