‘Black Panther’ Lost at the Oscars But Won in Chemistry Class

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Now that “Black Panther,” the best movie of 2018, has failed to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, let’s talk about the periodic table of the elements.

Wait, what?

You know, the periodic table, the iconic arrangement of the chemical elements according to their properties that was developed by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869 in order to torture high school science students. Oh, sorry. That’s not it. He created the periodic table as a way of grouping known elements by their commonalities and predicting new ones. (For the most part, he made great predictions.) This year, we celebrate its sesquicentennial.

The periodic table has accomplished the task — odd among abstruse theoretical constructs — of becoming part of the public discourse (perhaps only the theory of relativity is mentioned more often). Devised at first to help scientists understand the properties of the elements, the table grew into a teaching tool, memorized (or not) by miserable eighth-graders. And among all the great scientific discoveries, only the periodic table inspired a magnificent song by the great Tom Lehrer — a song that, in its entirety, made a delightful if ominous appearance in an episode of the television drama “Better Call Saul.”

OK, great. Three cheers for Mendeleev. What’s any of this got to do with “Black Panther”?

The answer is one word: vibranium. That’s the name of the mythical element on which the film’s story turns. Vibranium possesses an astonishing strength and resilience, and can even resist kinetic energy. Upon this remarkable substance rests the technological might of the tiny nation of Wakanda,  enabling it to create a “post-scarcity society.” And it’s from vibranium that the Black Panther derives his power.  Much of the film’s plot involves a battle over whether technology based on vibranium should be kept secret or shared with the world (at least with the oppressed of the world).

All of which leads to a question: If vibranium really existed, where would it reside in the periodic table?

This fun puzzle turns out to have provoked plenty of debate among fans and scientists alike.  Even while “Black Panther” was still in the theaters, some online spelunkers thought they’d found the answer elsewhere in the Marvel universe: Vibranium — Vb, as we’re apparently supposed to call it — belongs in Group 2, among the alkaline earth metals. Around the same time, another commenter decided that vibranium should have atomic number 22, making it titanium. (A sixth stable titanium isotope?) Marvel itself has licensed for sale a T-shirt that gives Vb the atomic number 76 (currently occupied by osmium) and an atomic weight of 194.1 (which would rank between iridium and platinum).

The trouble is that the seven existing rows of the periodic table are now full, and other inconvenient elements can’t simply be shouldered aside. So vibranium would have to appear among the “superheavy” elements of the hypothesized eighth row — or perhaps beyond.

But now, even within the fiction, a problem arises. You’ll remember from high school science that protons repel each other. When atomic nuclei are large — as they are in the superheavy elements — the binding forces can’t hold all those protons together. Thus the superheavies are, for the most part, unstable. No sooner do they come into existence than they begin to decay. Many exist only for milliseconds, and researchers have yet to be able to create them in anything like the mass that would be necessary to build one tiny Wakandan instrument — to say nothing of the meteorite rich with the stuff that brought the tiny nation its riches.

Nevertheless, theorists believe that an “island of stability” exists somewhere among the superheavies. In particular, researchers expect greater stability in elements 120, 124, and 126, although some think the stability will arise elsewhere in the row. Wherever the island is located, perhaps it could provide Vb a safe harbor.

Yes, yes, OK: Vibranium is fictitious. An element with its properties couldn’t exist in our physical world. Marvel tells us that vibranium is of extraterrestrial origin, but the fact that it’s not from earth doesn’t make its collection of attributes any more possible.  Nor does it make the attempt to find it a place in the periodic table entirely pointless.

Last June, the Journal of Chemical Education published a letter on the topic from two chemists, Sibrina N. Collins and LaVetta Appleby, both of Lawrence Technological University. They gave students in general chemistry courses an examination question asking where vibranium should be placed in the periodic table. The idea was to show that inquiries of this sort, tying science to popular culture, engage both the attention and the critical faculties of the young. The answers were thoughtful and instructive, and bear close reading, if only to delight in the seriousness that Collins’s and Appleby’s students brought to the endeavor.

When we can make science fun, we should. Yes, plenty of movies feature atrocious science. But many others, even within physically impossible settings, present fine opportunities to debate the real thing. That’s why it’s important to place vibranium in the periodic table. Not because we can; we can’t. But we can sure learn a lot while trying.

There’s also an enjoyable and educational animated version available here.

For Marvel nerds: It’s also part of the alloy from which Captain America’s shield is constructed.

More specifically, vibranium has somehow infused the blossoms that, once consumed, grant the Black Panther his abilities.

A post on a Marvel fan page from 2002 dismissed the question as misguided: “Vibranium is not an element, despite various references to it as such. The properties of Vibranium do not qualify it to fill any gaps in the Periodic Table of Elements. Moreover, Vibranium could not be an element with a higher atomic weight than any known elements, since it is not radioactive as the elements with the highest atomic weights are.”

The T-shirt turns out to be available also with other atomic numbers. Among those I’ve spotted online are 66 (dysprosium), 88 (actinium), and 119 (a theoretical element not yet synthesized).

Marvel also does not always call vibranium an element, although it’s almost always called a metal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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