Thursday, April 26, 2007

Superman's kryptonite confirmed in Canada

From the Globe and Mail:

Staff and Bloomberg News
April 25, 2007 at 8:54 AM EST
Warning to Superman: Stay clear of Ottawa. With the help of our very own National Research Council, scientists have identified a mineral with virtually the same composition as kryptonite, the space rock that makes the Man of Steel more like a man of straw.

It all started in Serbia, where geologists working with mining giant Rio Tinto unearthed a drill core of a rock they couldn't match to any known mineral. So they contacted Chris Stanley, a mineralogist at London's Natural History Museum.

He measured the composition, colour, hardness, infrared spectrum and powder-defraction pattern of the sample. "They knew from the start this had to be a new mineral," says Yvon LePage, a principal research officer at the NRC.

However, such measurements alone aren't always enough to get a new mineral accepted by the International Mineralogical Association. Sometimes a sample can be a mixture of several minerals. "The real proof is if you can get [an image of] the crystal structure," says Dr. LePage.

It isn't green but a new mineral, to be formally named jadarite later this year, matches the chemistry of kryptonite from Superman cartoons. (AFP/Getty Images)

So Dr. Stanley consulted the NRC, where research officer Pamela Whitfield, using state-of-the-art equipment, was able to come up with a tentative crystal structure from the powder samples she was sent. Dr. LePage then used the NRC's supercomputers to optimize the findings and provide a very precise crystal structure. The NRC took the findings to the IMA and, says Dr. LePage, "it was promptly accepted as a new mineral."

But when Dr. Stanley typed the composition of the new mineral -- sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide -- into Google, he was astonished to find that it matched up with kryptonite. "He said, 'I nearly fell off my chair,' " says Dr. LePage. "And we had a good laugh."

The composition matched the scientific name written on a case of rock containing kryptonite stolen from a museum by Superman's arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, in the film Superman Returns.

"I don't know of any other instance of something being imagined in fiction and then found in nature," Dr. Stanley said.

The terrestrial mineral differs from the fictional rock, whose source was Superman's home planet of Krypton, only in that it is white, rather than green, and lacks fluorine, according to the museum. The name displayed on the case in the movie includes the words "with fluorine" after "hydroxide."

The rock will be named jadarite, after Jadar, the place in Serbia where it was discovered, Dr. Stanley said.

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