forbidden chemical elements

April 17th, 2014 by paul

More old-timey chemistry from Appendix N author A. Merritt:

What of that radiant unknown element upon the moon mount Tycho? What of that element unknown to us as part of earth which is seen only in the corona of the sun at eclipse that we call coronium?
-The Moon Pool, 1918

The Moon Pool is as much sci-fi as it is fantasy or horror, despite its author's influence on H. P. Lovecraft. It draws on the archaeology and chemistry of its day, much of which is delightfully wrong. Failed historical science is a great source for fantasy.

So apparently, in the 19th century, scientists thought they'd discovered a new chemical element which only existed in the the sun's corona. They called it "coronium." It turns out they were misreading their spectrographs and they were just seeing highly ionized iron. It's a great name, though: as selenium's name suggests "moon stuff", coronium is "crown stuff" or "sun stuff."

We all know that, as mithril is super-silver that trumps steel, there must be a super-gold that trumps mithril. Maybe it's coronium. When the gods take up arms, I bet they draw shining golden swords: at least, in Greek myth, Haephestus is always making gold weapons and armor for people (a shield for Achilles, a breastplate for Hercules, bow and arrow for Apollo.)

How rare is coronium? Dwarves mine for mithril, but can they even find a coronium vein? My guess is that such weapons are only the gifts of the gods.

And what of that other unknown element we find glowing green in the far-flung nebulae—green as that we had just passed through—and that we call nebulium?
-The Moon Pool

Merritt mentions another fun fake element: nebulum (or nebulium or nephelium), another spectrographic mistake, "discovered" in 1864 by William Huggins. Huggins thought it was an element that only appeared in nebulae. It turned out to be ionized oxygen. Again, nebulum is a great name for a magical material: "cloudstuff."

One more Lovecraftian detail about nebulium: its spectrographic light signature wasn't identified as oxygen right away because scientists thought it was impossible that such super-ionized atoms could exist long enough to emit light. Such an unearthly electron state, impossible except in the voids between the stars, is seriously called a "forbidden line". It's forbidden light! That's reminiscent of Lovecraft's story "The Colour Out of Space", where unusual cosmic light causes all sorts of eldritch trouble.

Nebulium seems like a great counterpart to coronium. It might be used to forge the weapons of the evil cloud giants, or it might cast invisibility on its owners, or it might radiate darkness or even madness. It could even be the strange black metal of drow weapons. It might be the harbringer of beholders, grell, and other creatures of the far realms.

5 Responses to “forbidden chemical elements”

  1. Fascinating idea. I did something like this in my current campaign: meteor strikes as adventure moments. Meteoric metal can carry magical charges, and while falling to the ground accumulate elemental power (heat, air, water, earth) which is discharged on impact in the form of Giant-ing animals, creating Undead (zombies and skeletons), and summoning elemental beings. Additionally, spells cast in the vicinity have a chance of either extended or muted effects due to the energy of the area. The energy dissipates, but the meteoric metal is still valuable for magical weapons, etc.

  2. Rhenium says:

    Here is a possibility… perhaps it is not that mithril and other metals are rare, perhaps it is simply that you don’t find them in the raw form. One doesn’t mine “iron” you mine iron ore and then have to do some crafty chemistry (reduction) to get iron.

    As an analogy, perhaps mithril is like titanium or aluminium. Both very common elements, but the secret is actually in the refining, and they produce a metal that is strong, light, rust-resistant and so on, something that would be “magical” in any medieval setting.

    Perhaps the idea of “veins of mithril” is a dwarven myth to cover up the fact that they no longer know or remember how to refine it. New mitrhil objects are those made from old pieces of mithril made before the loss of knowledge and which have been re-used.

  3. paul says:

    Wow, what a Dying Earth idea: veins of mithril are excavation sites of former dwarven empires.

  4. Matt says:

    ok, not only the article, but the comments are producing all sorts of lovely ideas in my head. I like the idea of many odd metals (or crystals, or plant and animal parts) with each being best at taking different sorts of enchantments.

  5. Rich says:

    Obviously, the dwarves aren’t going to find coronium in their mines, because it is clearly only mined on the surface of the sun itself. Which is tricky, sure, but no worse than the Elemental Plane of Fire, really. Ring of Fire Resistance and you’re good to go. The toughest part for the workers is the commute, really.

    Of course, this doesn’t stop panhandlers on their sky-canoes from trying to sieve it out of the sunlight that falls. Any day now, it’ll be extra sunny and they’ll finally hit it big!

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