Welcome to Reality Check, a new weekly column on Adventures in Poor Taste that aims to address the science in our favorite fantasies and how it relates to the way things work here on Earth Prime. My intention is not to lament the technical inaccuracies of fiction, as even the most hard-nosed empiricist should be able to lose themselves in an otherworldly story, but to use those touchstones to celebrate the great work that’s inspired those tales. And besides, as you’re about to see, sometimes folks in the “real world” don’t get it right, either.
Of Elements and Men
In the film Iron Man 2, Tony Stark has a problem. The palladium necessary to power the arc reactor in his chest, the only thing keeping him alive after Stark absorbed a blast of missile shrapnel, is in turn poisoning him. Palladium is a silvery-white metal used in fuel cells. While most people never come into contact with palladium concentrations higher than what’s in their car exhaust, certain palladium compounds have been shown to cause bone marrow, liver and kidney damage in lab animals.
Image via images-of-elements.com
Tony finds a solution in an old film reel of his father, who posthumously reveals the atomic structure of a brand new element capable of countering the deadly reaction. A genius himself, the elder Stark had hidden the information “in the disguised form of the blueprint of the  Stark Expo,” knowing that one day technology would advance far enough to synthesize the novel material. Indeed, the brilliant inventor behind the iron mask deftly creates a medallion that he then irradiates with an unidentified beam in his basement to seal the deal, as the comforting words of JARVIS the artificial intelligence certify, “You have created a new element.”
“Well, that was easy.”
This is the rare case in which the narrative version is actually less impressive than its real world counterpart, as physicists have been synthesizing elements since the 1930’s, and they don’t need an architectural schematic to do so. Different elements are simply defined by the number of protons in their nucleus, so there’s no real structure that needs to be imagined or deduced. A helium atom is only fundamentally different from a hydrogen atom, for example, because it has one more proton. Helium usually has an extra electron and neutron also, but it can lose or gain any number of those other particles and still “be” helium, by definition.
Elements in the Periodic Table are listed according to their number of protons, from one to whatever.
Making new elements is less about finesse than it is brute force. If you can jam another proton into a nucleus and get it to stick, hey, you’ve got a new element! It really is that simple, at least conceptually. The problem is that just as opposites attract, like charges repel; so getting an extra proton lodged in that lump of positive material requires the tremendous energies produced only in particle accelerators.
The first cyclotrons were small enough to fit in Tony Stark’s cellar, but modern accelerators can be miles across. The particles that race through them are sped up by electromagnetic fields, so blasting a stream through the air, as Tony does, probably wouldn’t get the protons going fast enough to achieve his intent.
I can’t even fit a pool table in my basement.
The “Confirmation” of Element 115
Tony’s tale is topical because in August, Dick Rudolph of Sweden’s Lund University and his team made headlines for their synthesis of element 115 (with a nucleus containing 115 protons), tentatively named “ununpentium.” Several usually reliable science news sites characterized the feat as confirming the existence of element 115, when they really just confirmed the results of a previous experiment 10 years ago. As we’ve seen, “confirming” the existence of a new element is a bit like proving you can make a 7-scoop ice cream sundae. Not so much a discovery as it is a feat of engineering. The task was accomplished using Germany’s UNILAC accelerator, which measures almost 400 feet in length. Not something even the biggest technophile has kicking around downstairs.
UNILAC gets a tune-up.
As you might expect, synthetic elements are typically very unstable and decay rapidly, necessitating the need for replication before they’re put in the books. Observations of element 115 show it to have a half-life of no more than 200 milliseconds, so it’s not like you can keep some in your pocket for proof. It took a decade, but the original researchers got their pat on the pack, although not from a disembodied voice.
Fantasy Smashes into Reality
Although if you’re a follower of Bob Lazar, you might insist that the reality of ununpentium was actually confirmed nearly 25 years ago. Lazar became famous through assertions that he had worked to “reverse engineer” the propulsion systems of alien spacecraft at Area 51, Nevada’s secret Air Force base. While newly released government documentation admits the facility’s existence and its use for testing craft such as the U-2 spyplane, Lazar’s extraterrestrial claims, much like his credentials, remain dubious.
According to Lazar, ununpentium was used as a fuel source for the machines, which would be pretty impossible considering what we know about how quickly it decays. Some nuclear physicists believe there may be certain isotopes of the synthetic elements, a supposed “island of stability” that may have longer half-lives, but they likely still wouldn’t be more than a few minutes or days.
Could a handful of quickly decaying atoms really power something like this?
The propulsion, according to Lazar, was actually achieved by using accelerators to turn element 115 into element 116, and utilizing the anti-matter decay products as it dropped back down to ununpentium. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, as element 116 is actually easier to synthesize than 115 (it’s already been acknowledged by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and named “livermorium,” while “ununpentium” remains provisional). Also, while some substances do produce anti-matter particles such as positrons when they decay, livermorium isn’t one of them. It gives off alpha particles instead.
Two Great Tastes, If Enjoyed Separately
Iron Man 2 is still a fun movie even if the science doesn’t match up exactly with what we know. Fiction is a fine compliment to reality and each can be appreciated on its own merits. Minor cinematic mistakes are trivial in comparison to those made when fantasy is forcefully (and ineffectively) injected into the real world. I’m okay with Iron Man making elements in his basement; just don’t tell me about aliens doing it in the desert.
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