Created By: fulltimeD on April 15, 2012 Last Edited By: fulltimeD on March 29, 2015

Superpowered Derivative Of Mundanium

Fantastic Phlenotinum derived from a mundane source

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From The Other Wiki, "Isotopes are variants of a particular chemical element. While all isotopes of a given element share the same number of protons, each isotope differs from the others in its number of neutrons." Isotopes can have different nuclear, chemical or biological properties, such as rates of radioactive decay (half-lives), or the amount of potential nuclear energy that could be provided by a fission or fusion reaction. Other kinds of structural variations exist: isomers, compounds with the same molecular formula but different structural formulas, and other isoplats (compounds or elements that are modified in some way), and different crystal structures, for example, of water (see the Cat's Cradle example below, in Literature.

That's Real Life. In fiction-land, isotopes and other structural variants of mundane elements are a way to handwave the unusual properties of made-up substances. Superweapons and other energy-intensive technologies frequently lack a sufficient Real Life power source. Fortunately, SCIENCE! has an answer: just alter the structure slightly, and you can turn regular old dish soap into Unobtainium or Green Rocks. This is especially useful for Big Bads without Time Travel or Casual Interstellar Travel, who are thus limited to Present Day Earth or a similar, relatively mundane setting. Combining two or more mundane substances into a compound with fantastic properties in another common variation.

The mundane element that the phlebotinumized derivative is derived from could be a real element, but it doesn't have to be. It's probably better if it's not.

Often leads to a What Do You Mean, It's Phlebotinum?? moment.

Does not cover even more powerful derivatives of already powerful Phlebotinum, Green Rocks, etc., like Dilithium Crystals in Star Trek or Naquadria in Star Gate SG 1. Does, however, cover examples of superpowered derivatives of fictional substances which are still considered "mundane" in the setting.

Anime and Manga

  • In an episode of The New Adventures of Speed Racer, the heroes couldn't understand why someone would be after a rare, but completely useless mineral. Then a lab accident revealed that a combination of seawater and heat can turn it into another mineral, used for stealth jet coating and worth thousands per gram.

Comics

  • The Golden Age Flash supposedly got his speed powers from inhaling the fumes from "hard water" (which exists in real life, but does not have the fantastic properties portrayed in the source material). The way it was presented, the writer obviously thought he was making up a new type of water and didn't know that "hard water" already meant something in Real Life (which doesn't, incidentally, have fumes). It still counts, though, because it's a superpowered derivative of water, and water is a mundane substance.
    • "Hard water" of course also has a real life meaning which has nothing to do with superpowers (it refers to water with too many dissolved minerals, particularly the kind that cause trouble when doing laundry). In Real Life, Hard Water does not have fumes.
  • Adamantium, the nigh-indestructable material in Wolverine's claws, is typically said to be an alloy of existing metals, including iron.
    • Adamantium is described in the comics as an alloy of ordinary metals. The detailed description of the structure varies, but at least on one occasion it has been described as iron with the atoms arranged in diamond form (the relationship between iron and Adamantium being analogous to the relationship between carbon and diamond.

Film

  • In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Scotty "rewards" someone for helping him by giving them a formula for transparent aluminum while stranded in the year 1985, since the Enterprise crew need it to contain the whales inside their stolen Bird-of-Prey. He reasons away the fact that he's giving away this advanced technology too early in the timeline by pointing out, "How do we know he didn't invent the thing?"

Literature

  • Ice-9 from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, is itself an example of this technique being used to turn something mundane and relatively harmless (regular old ice), into the catalyst for a superweapon (it is a different crystal structure, which catalyzes the transformation of any water it touches into a form of ice that can basically never melt). It ends civilization as we know it.
  • In his Pulp Magazine incarnation, the Green Lama used a radioactively-altered version of table salt to give himself heightened bioelectric energy (which he combined with Pressure Points for various effects)...and make him immune to harmful radiation.

Live-Action Television:

  • Fringe: Amphilicite, the substance that David Robert Jones used to rip holes in the frikkin' universe, is apparently created by changing the chemical structure of a rather common mineral.
    • In other episodes, it's revealed that because of the ongoing contact between two parallel universes, the laws of physics in both universes have been altered, creating "soft spots" and other oddities, such in one episode when a scientist combined two heavy metals and was able to produce anti-gravity phenomenon as an unpredicted result.
  • Battlestar Galactica (reimagined) features Tylium, a mineral substance that is mined from asteroids and refined from a mineral into a liquid that somehow provides the energy necessary to power jump drives.
  • Star Trek Series:
    • Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Naked Time". On an ancient, dying ice planet suffering from severe changes in physical laws (gravity, mass and magnetic fields) due to its own disintegration, water is somehow changed into a complex chain of molecules- polywater- which also has virus-like properties. If it infects human beings it acts like alcohol, reducing judgement and self-control. A variant of the "Psi-2000 Polywater Virus" created by similar conditions aboard a starship closely observing a collapsing star returns in an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Naked Now."
    • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Maquis created a bioweapon to use against Cardassians by altering the molecular structure of several common substances. Their method surprised even Dax.
  • Farscape: Chlorium is an atmospherically induced isotope. It is dangerous for Leviathans to transport because of its analgesic properties (it numbs the biomechanoid living ships). It's also used by primitive cultures as table salt.
    • One episode claims that a Peacekeeper Marauder uses "Cesium fuel." Cesium, also spelled Caesium, is a real element. In Real Life, humans use it for photoelectric cells. One isotope of it, Caesium-137, is actually a byproduct of nuclear fission. And it reacts explosively with cold water.
      • The main "interesting" property of Cs is being the most electropositive and easily ionized metal. As such, used when something needs to emit electrons (vacuum lamps, cathodes in photocells and suchlike) or to "salt" otherwise bad plasma and make it more conductive - that is, in things like explosive MHD generators. And it's got the second lowest boiling point among metals, after mercury. And a spaceship thruster is likely to have powerful plasma- and/or particle beam- based components. With fusion reactors it's less clear, but if either electron beams or "rich" cold plasma are required, Caesium again. So, one way or another, it's about the most obvious expendable material for spaceships. Odd that Farscape, of all series, actually got this right.
  • Based on the naming scheme, Quantium-40 in Babylon 5 might have been an example of this, if other isotopes of Quantium (assuming that is what the number -40 referred to) are not generally extracted for the construction of jump gates (we never hear anything about scouts searching the galaxy for Quantium-39.).

Tabletop RPG
  • Shadowrun. It was possible to use alchemy to change ordinary materials such as metals into "radicals", altered versions that were extremely useful in creating magic items. The metals included copper, gold, iron, lead, mercury, silver and tin.
  • Mortdred's Magical Metals, a collection of metals from various RPG's. A number of the metals on the list were magically altered versions of normal metals, including the "Star of" metals (Iron, Copper, Silver, Gold, Platinum), Fixed Mercury and True (Iron, Copper, Gold).
Community Feedback Replies: 34
  • April 15, 2012
    zarpaulus
    • Stargate SG 1: Naquadria, an unstable, much more powerful version of naquada that has a tendency to explode. And is used to power earth's early hyperdrives.
  • April 15, 2012
    fulltimeD
    ^I don't think that would count. I thought about it but didn't add it because Naquada is already pretty powerful Green Rocks, not a mundane isotope. This trope covers something relatively mundane being turned into Green Rocks or Unobtainium by an artificial process.

    Dilithium from Star Trek and Unobtainium from Avatar are excluded from the list for similar reasons.
  • April 15, 2012
    Stratadrake
    Current working title is nice. Though would Mundanium Isotope be better?
  • April 15, 2012
    elwoz
    Vonnegut's Ice-9 is a different crystal structure for water; it doesn't involve messing with the atoms in the water molecules. If you mean the trope to cover that too, you need to make that clearer in the description.
  • April 15, 2012
    Lumpenprole
    The Golden Age Flash supposedly got his speed powers from heavy (deuterium) water.

  • April 15, 2012
    fulltimeD
    ^^Thanks, I'll address that next edit.
  • April 15, 2012
    aurora369
    Isosplat Of Mundanium? ("isosplat" covering isotopes, isomers and other kind of substances modified in some way).
  • April 16, 2012
    fulltimeD
  • April 17, 2012
    NightNymph
    Does this example count (and it may need more details and/or tweaking if I'm remembering it incorrectly)...

    • In Star Trek IV:The Voyage Home, Scotty "rewards" someone for helping him by giving them a somehow tweaked version of aluminum that supposedly will make it see-through, since the Enterprise crew need it to contain the whales. He reasons away the fact that he's giving away this advanced technology potentially too early by reasoning "How do we know he didn't invent the thing?".
  • April 22, 2012
    fulltimeD
    Anyone got more examples?
  • April 22, 2012
    SKJAM
    • In his Pulp Magazine incarnation, the Green Lama used a radioactively-altered version of table salt to give himself heightened bioelectric energy (which he combined with Pressure Points for various effects)...and make him immune to harmful radiation.
  • April 23, 2012
    Arivne
    Live Action TV
    • Star Trek
      • Star Trek The Original Series episode "The Naked Time". On a planet suffering from severe changes in physical laws (gravity, mass and magnetic fields), water is somehow changed into a complex chain of molecules. If it enters human beings it acts like alcohol, reducing judgement and self-control.
  • April 23, 2012
    elwoz
    ^ That was polywater, which was thought to be a real thing at the time the episode was filmed, but has since been proved not to exist.
  • April 23, 2012
    arromdee
    The Golden Age Flash did not get his powers from heavy water. He got it from hard water.

    "Hard water" of course also has a real life meaning which has nothing to do with superpowers (it refers to water with too many dissolved minerals, particularly the kind that cause trouble when doing laundry). I suspect that the writer didn't realize he was using an existing term.

    Maybe we should have a separate trope for when the writer accidentally makes up a term that's the same as an existing one. The "Promethium" in Teen Titans is another example of that. Also the "microns" on the original Battlestar Galactica.
  • April 23, 2012
    elwoz
    ^ The explanation of how the SubspaceAnsibles work in Enders Game involves "mesons", which are real, and have well-understood properties that render the technobabble into a Wall Banger moment for anyone who's heard of quark confinement. (And were so understood at the time the story was written, AFAIK.)
  • April 23, 2012
    fulltimeD
    @arromdee: In Universe, what did "Hard Water" mean/what was the technobabble explanation? I'm curious cause I'm not familiar with the source material (obviously I know the name Flash but I've only ever seen a version of that character in an episode of Smallville and I've never read the comics).
  • April 23, 2012
    remande
    I remember a short story with a mad scientist who figured out that the reason that paper towels don't always rip at the perforations was that the perforations made the paper stronger. He took this to its logical conclusion by taking some paper and perforating all the actual paper out of it. "You can't stop me! I'm protected by NOTHING!" Damned if it didn't work...
  • April 24, 2012
    Unknown Troper
    Not sure if this applies, but I thought it's worth mentioning:

    • The nigh-indestructible adamantium of Marvel Comics is an alloy of ordinary metals. The detailed description of the structure varies, but at least on one occasion it has been described as iron with the atoms arranged in diamond form.
  • April 24, 2012
    arromdee
    fulltimeD: There were basically no details. He inhaled the fumes from hard water in a lab and got powers. The way it was presented, the writer obviously thought he was making up a new type of water and didn't know that "hard water" already means something (which doesn't, incidentally, have fumes).

    I still say we should differentiate between someone intentionally using a real term and someone making one up by chance.
  • April 24, 2012
    fulltimeD
    ^ Agreed about the distinction. In ambiguous cases though, it seems reasonable that if there are enough similarities between a substance in real life and fiction (for example, the Farscape example with Caesium as spaceship fuel isn't entirely clear if "Caesium" was the real element or just something a writer made up that happened to be the same name as a real element should count, because of the similar properties of the fictional and real element), but the "Flash" example where a writer thought "hard water" was a nonexistent, made up term (it wasn't) would not count. Similarly, an example from media predating the discovery of an element (let's call it "Tropium") that used, coincidentally, the same name "Tropium" would not count, as there is no way a writer writing a story 30 years before "Tropium" is discovered could have known that some day the term would come to mean a real substance.

    Does that make sense? I'll remove the "Flash" example later since it doesn't really count.
  • April 24, 2012
    fulltimeD
    Great catch with the Star Trek polywater infection example, Arivne.
  • April 25, 2012
    timotaka
    Would forms of carbon like Fullerene (AKA buckyballs) and nanotubes be a real-world example?
  • April 26, 2012
    TBeholder
    ^^^ The main "interesting" property of Cs is being the most electropositive and easily ionized metal. As such, used when something needs to emit electrons (vacuum lamps, cathodes in photocells and suchlike) or to "salt" otherwise bad plasma and make it more conductive - that is, in things like explosive MHD generators. And it got the second lowest boiling point among metals, after mercury. And a spaceship thruster is likely to have powerful plasma- and/or particle beam- based components. With fusion reactors it's less clear, but if either electron beams or "rich" cold plasma are required, Caesium again. So, one way or another, it's about the most obvious expendable material for spaceships.
  • April 26, 2012
    fulltimeD
    ^ Which makes it all the more ironic that Farscape of all series mentioned it was used as spaceship fuel...
  • April 26, 2012
    fulltimeD
    @timotaka: My gut says No Real Life Examples; we should stick to sci-fi/fantasy, since a "superpowered substance" is pretty much by definition fiction-only.
  • April 26, 2012
    arromdee
    Does that make sense? I'll remove the "Flash" example later since it doesn't really count.

    Actually, the Flash example still counts because it's a superpowered derivative of water, and water is a mundane substance. (Even if it doesn't count as a derivative of "hard water" since the writer didn't seem to know that hard water was a mundane substance)
  • April 26, 2012
    sinesofinsanity
    I don't think that Tylium from the Battlestar Galactica example counts as Tylium isn't an isotope or alloy of an existing material, but instead is a brand new substance.

    That being said, adamantium, the material in Wolverine's claws, is typically said to be an alloy of existing metals, including iron.
  • April 26, 2012
    Omeganian
    I remember an episode of The New Adventures of Speed Racer where the heroes couldn't understand why someone would be after a rare, but completely useless mineral. Then a lab accident revealed that a combination of seawater and heat can turn it into another mineral, used for stealth jet coating and worth thousands per gram.
  • April 26, 2012
    fulltimeD
    @sinesofinsanity: A fictional substance could be mundane to the setting. I purposefully broadened the description from the original which focused mostly on isotopes

    Amphilicite in Fringe, for example. Also the Star Trek Deep Space Nine and one of the Farscape examples

  • April 27, 2012
    Arivne
    Tabletop RPG
    • Shadowrun. It was possible to use alchemy to change ordinary materials such as metals into "radicals", altered versions that were extremely useful in creating magic items. The metals included copper, gold, iron, lead, mercury, silver and tin.
    • Mortdred's Magical Metals, a collection of metals from various RPG's. A number of the metals on the list were magically altered versions of normal metals, including the "Star of" metals (Iron, Copper, Silver, Gold, Platinum), Fixed Mercury and True (Iron, Copper, Gold).
  • April 28, 2012
    fulltimeD
    Ok- people familiar with The Flash, how would YOU word that example. I'm not familiar with the material, so I'd appreciate some help.
  • May 10, 2012
    fulltimeD
    bump
  • January 18, 2013
    elwoz
    This seems done except that the title is long and confusing.
  • March 29, 2015
    DAN004
    Bump.

    Does it HAVE to involve isotopes? Can it involve something like how diamond and graphite are made of the same thing?
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