[Think Tank] Legend of Korra: Platinumbending

[As the first half of S1 of Avatar: Legend of Korra heats up in an explosive one-hour mid-season event, the Overthinkers tackle the science and practice of earthbending.]

Perich: Avatar: Legend of Korra takes place 70 years after the original series. Toph Bei Fong founded the first police department in the high-tech (think 1920s Shanghai) Republic City. She created a corps of police officers, all of whom are trained in the elusive art of metalbending. They wear suits of armor threaded with high-tension wires that they use to swing, pole-vault and lasso around the city. It’s really cool.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lA2OhJyYjPI

In episode 7, Lin Bei Fong (Toph’s daughter), Korra (the new Avatar) and some friends square off against a terrorist mastermind. He’s built suits of walking mecha-tanks out of platinum, which Lin is powerless against. “Not even your renowned mother could bend a metal so pure.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGcR-A8LOGg

Is this legit science? Or even on speaking terms with same?

Platinum and iron are both elements, so I don’t think one is necessarily “purer” than the other on the atomic scale. Wikipedia tells me that platinum is a noble metal, highly resistant to oxidation, and that it’s the least reactive metal. Could that be what makes metal “bendable” – its oxidatable properties? (Keep in mind there’s no canonical answer to this yet; we are breaking new grounds in bending theory)

Fenzel: Platinum has a few properties that make it describable as “pure.” As you mentioned, it doesn’t tarnish much or easily. It is extremely difficult to corrode. It doesn’t wear out. It is very conductive. It is used in high-precision and high-tech stuff associated with purity, like computers, dental equipment and catalytic converters.

Although I think really what to consider here is the relationship between Platinum and Silver. Silver has long been seen as quasi-magical. It kills werewolves and vampires, etc. Even Muhammad rocked silver.

But silver was also used to purify water, treat wounds and fight infections since ancient times. Silver solutions were certified by the FDA as antibacterial. That and its top-of-the-line conductivity and value as currency.

In much the same way that Titanium is in the popular imagination as a sort of futuristic super-steel, Platinum is in the popular imagination as a sort of futuristic super-silver. Because of its color (particular in contrast to gold), value and use in jewelry and electronics, it is similar to silver and seen as “better” – even though it doesn’t have silver’s antibacterial properties, and in fact if you do manage to get some of it dissolved and into your body, it’s a heavy metal like lead and generally not good for you.

So, yeah, that’s my take. That the platinum mech is supposed to have a similar mystical quality to silver, but even moreso, because it doesn’t corrode or tarnish.

Shechner: Note that Platinum, while difficult to oxidize (oxidization here serving as proxy for all chemical reactivities), is far from chemically inert. Di-amino-adducts of platinum–the canonical “cis-platin” being a chief example–have for some time now been used as moderately effective chemotherapeutics. Heck, if you’re good enough at chemistry, you can get almost anything to bond to anything else. The “bending” of platinum might serve as allegory for its amalgamation or chemical perturbation: it would take a true master to achieve such changes with subtle control.

I’ll also throw out there that this could be an oblique reference to the isotopic content of the two metals. True, most terrestrial isotopes of Ag and Pt are exceptionally stable, the vast majority of their masses being nonradioactive or exceptionally long-lived (190Pt has a half life of ~10^11 years). However, while there are some 31 naturally occurring radioisotopes of silver, all analogous species of platinum have been artificially generated. Hence, if an immortal being were handed a kg each of naturally-mined silver and platinum, after an eternity had passed, he’d have more Pt on hand than Ag.

Stokes: There is something odd about using Platinum’s traits as a Mendeleevian element to critique its treatment as an Aristotelian element — odd, but totally on-mission, so go ahead. A couple of thoughts:

1) The notion of metal being unbendable seems to have to do with its status as a work of man rather than a naturally occurring substance. Any earth bender can move rocks, but convert those into ingots, and suddenly they won’t bend a bit. This has a resonance with the more general tech vs. nature subtext of the original series. (Of course, firebenders don’t have any problem with using manmade fire — but whatever.) Titanium would in this case not be a good choice for bend-proof metal, because you can pull lumps of it right out of the ground, at which point they ARE rocks and therefore bendable. Aluminum, on the other hand…

2) As I recall, Toph’s original success in metalbending depended on her super lack-of-vision skills: she didn’t just sense the particles of earth in the metal, she pounded on the metal and listened to the resonance of its crystalline structure, thus finding the flaws. Presumably there would be shapes that you could cast metal into that would interfere with this, drowning out the resonance of the fine structure with the resonance of the gross structure? Again, can’t imagine that platinum would help here.

3) On the other hand, we could take the show at its word and say that earthbending, and by extension metalbending, depends on the heterogeneity of the material. (For this to hold, most gemstones would also need to be unbendable, right?) This had interesting implications for Avatar-verse metallurgy, because presumably you could achieve metals of unimaginable purity (by real-world standards) by melting the ore and then simply trying to lift it by earthbending. All of the impurities would lift, and the pure ore would be left behind. (This ignores the fact that many impurities are themselves metals, but whatever.)

So getting pure metal – platinum or otherwise – would be trivial. Keeping it pure is another thing. Metals stored in a corrosive environment like our atmosphere are basically always covered with a thin layer of oxide regardless of how pure they are otherwise, right? And here the non-reactive quality of platinum actually *would* make a difference, although I’m not sure how big it would be… Presumably there’s less oxide on the surface of a platinum mech than there would be on an iron or aluminum one, at least over the short term.

The real question then becomes whether pure platinum is hard and resilient enough to be structurally useful, or whether Korra et. al. should be able to spread those mechs on toast with a butterknife.

[What say you, pro-benders? Is platinum truly proof against metalbending, or will the can-do spirit of Republic City find a way? Also: how are you liking Korra’s adventurs? Sound off in the comments!]

18 Comments on “[Think Tank] Legend of Korra: Platinumbending”

  1. NotQuiteAtlas #

    Several things here don’t pan out for me.

    While I understand the viewpoint that popular media seems to have elevated platinum to some sort of super-silver state and as such carries with it ages of mystic baggage I disagree that it has much to do with the use here for the anti-bender mechs. You addressed that metal bending mostly had to do with manipulating impurities in the metal which holds to what we saw in the first series when Toph bent her way out of what appeared to be a roughly constructed metal box. I have two theories as to why platinum and/or “purity” have anything to do with bendability.

    Hiroshi Sato is a the head of a highly successful company. He obviously lives well and judging from how he portrays himself, he has expensive tastes. While he must have some knowledge of the inherent principles behind his machines, what are the chances that he has hands on experience treating and casting the actual metal itself? I suppose it’s possible he could be playing Hank Rearden on his weekends but frankly I see him more as a Howard Hughes. He designs the machine and has people build it to his specs while he crunches numbers and holds meetings. To get his hands very dirty would be beneath him. He likely told his men “get me something unbendable, then make this out of that.” Perhaps they developed a platinum alloy of sorts. I very much prefer to think this as platinum armor as a concept made me roll my eyes a bit. Perhaps they couldn’t refine anything else to such exacting specs. And perhaps Mr. Sato has a very crafty underling who made what he was told to and has been skimming off the top because “platinum” is so very expensive…

    Also, are we forgetting that Hiroshi Sato is a “bad guy?” He hates benders. He wants to eliminate them. It’s standard villain trope to explain what your machine is made of and why that means the protagonists are doomed but what if he’s subverting that trope? Could be he doesn’t understand the principles himself or it could be that he does and is flat out lying to retain his advantage. It psychologically preys on the insecurities of a bender against something they can’t bend. It uses his money as an intimidation factor. Platinum being expensive/rare/exotic to these people, how many times would they have run into it before to test their ability with it?

    I also doubt that just because something is man made that it has much to do with the ability to bend it. Katara bent her own sweat to escape a wooden prison. The entire earth kingdom seemed to be mostly clay/stone walls bent into impressive structures. The entire southern water tribe used ice in a smiliar way even creating a fairly impressive canal system. That metal can be made unbendable (and is difficult to bend to begin with) seems to relate to the distance from it’s original form in nature and, as you mentioned, it’s homogeneity. As for gemstones and the like, they seem to still count as “earth” since King Bumi was able to manipulate the crystal he was using in the first show.

    While on the subject of inconsistencies between the first show and LoK, did it bother anyone else that Tarrlock was able to grip someone’s wrist with what appeared to be a STATIC water whip? I don’t recall seeing anyone else use water to grip or hold anything and virtually all instances of water bending have involved movement or flowing stance. The water stays moving. When holding or pinning something down the water was made to ice except for this ONE occasion.

     
    • Stokes #

      Heh, I like the idea that it’s not platinum at all. “Okay, we made this out of cheap plastic. But I’m gonna tell him it’s platinum, and then I’m gonna increase our department’s budget by, like, 10,000%.”

       
    • Pasteur #

      re: Tarrlok – could he be using water bending there to cover the tracks of his bloodbending?

       
      • NotQuiteAtlas #

        What bothers me is that the water isn’t moving. He uses it like a rope or like the metal bending whips. He wrapped it around and held a target with it. That goes against the fundamental nature of every bit of water bending we’ve seen so far. Yes, he could stop someone by blood bending but he’s still doing something that should be impossible in the avatar universe – he’s making water that he’s suspended by bending remain completely stationary.

         
    • Gab #

      And perhaps Mr. Sato has a very crafty underling who made what he was told to and has been skimming off the top because “platinum” is so very expensive…

      So are you implying that, down the line, someone is going to be able to bend platinum? Story-wise, I suppose we can expect someone to eventually overcome the platinum barrier in the future (it’d be dramatic and badass, aye?), but the idea that they’re able to mess with the machines because one of Sato’s people screwed him over is actually pretty fascinating. I’m not going to ramble too much about that and what it says about who’s good and bad and such, nor about trust and allies, but suffice to say that if it does happen that way, it would be quite a bold move: it would undermine Sato’s “expertise,” as well as demonstrate the vast skill of whichever bender figured out how to bend platinum.

       
  2. Mark #

    I’ve never watched Avatar, but this is my first question when reading this post: what effect does the bender’s “willpower” have on their bending ability? With many other similar powers, willpower is crucial. For instance, it’s clear that the Force in Star Wars and Magneto’s metal-control (as demonstrated in ‘X-Men: First Class’) are proportional to willpower/self-confidence/desire/emotion/what-have-you, in addition to innate ability and training.

    So, in this case, does the fact that the bad guy says “you can’t bend platinum” (and the good guys believe him) make it so? If he hadn’t said anything, would they have struggled more than normal (due to platinum’s “purity” as discussed above) yet ultimately been successful in bending it? And will future episodes show someone developing the ability to bend platinum, largely just through coming to believe that they can?

    As for science-y explanations, platinum has lower Young’s and shear moduli, so it is actually more bendable than plain iron, though not nearly as bendable as gold or silver.

     
    • Lavanya #

      Re: Mark — Earthbending does depend to a certain degree on willpower, or basically stubbornness as Toph describes it. To move a rock, you need to be as tough as a rock. The other three elements seem to be different, but they aren’t all explored at length aside from firebending. It draws its power from the user’s own emotional state. When Zuko loses the primary drive in his life, he can barely generate any flame. He doesn’t regain his full abilities until he learns how to draw strength from something other than his inner anger.

      Re: Dr_Demento — Maybe Hiroshi has more platinum on hand because of earthbending. As Stokes discusses in the article, purifying metals is a lot easier with an earthbender to simply draw out impurities. Mining would also be greatly more productive with earthbenders, especially with ones trained in Toph’s “radar sense” to survey the underground for the location of precious ore.

       
      • John Perich #

        Also to note: in the scene above, Lin Bei Fong first tries to bend a platinum blast door (!!!) and fails, before being told that it’s platinum. So it’s not psychosomatic – she genuinely can’t bend it.

         
  3. Dr_Demento #

    I would personally defeat pure platinum mechs by waiting for their joints to either snap or bend irreparably due to the wait. Pure platinum is not strong (nor is any other pure element, besides Carbon and perhaps Silicon). One also has to question where he found enough platinum to build these machines, because Platinum is one of the rarest elements on Earth. Obviously LoK isn’t set on Earth, but the geology indicates a similar crust composition, and relative abundances of other minerals seem fairly consistent. Platinum is more precious than gold, and this guy apparently built a building out of it and then several larger than life robots to go with it. To give that some context, I found this gem:

    “All the platinum ever mined throughout history would fill a basement of less than 25 cubic feet” (http://www.gold-eagle.com/analysis/platinum.html)

    Even leaving aside this, I find it hard to believe that these robots are solid pure platinum, as if you pause at 0:16, you will see that inside the cockpit, there are actual different colored bits of metal, particularly a darker one that looks akin to brass. Pure platinum certainly does not come in different hues, which either makes that another metal altogether, or platinum with impurities added (probably for strength). Not to mention that his glasses frames better be pure platinum too.

    Then on the outside of the tanks, you have the green lights that are presumably powered by electricity. Ignoring any possible filaments, you still need something to form a circuit and a generator. Thus, insulation needs to be built into the tanks, which will probably be made of earth components. You would also need powerful magnets to form a generator, which can’t be made of pure platinum (it nor being ferro-magnetic). Alternatively, they could be battery powered, but that would require platinum electrodes (which actually are common, although not pure ones), one of which would be a cathode, and thus would be acquiring a build up of non-platinum particles on it.

    The long and the short of it is that there is no way that those robots are made of pure platinum, even if it would make sense for pure platinum to exist in those quantities.

     
    • Gab #

      What if they’re made with a platinum coating just thick enough to prevent bending of the rest of the thing? Like a shell through which the earth bending powers can’t penetrate?

      I say this because I immediately noticed the same thing when Sato was bragging about them being platinum- they looked nothing like it. But sort of like how a water bender needs access to something liquid before bending, the platinum prevents access to bendable elements.

       
      • Dr_Demento #

        I was considering that, but I ignored it because

        A) I felt like being pedantic about being made of “pure platinum”
        B) There are windows in that thing.

        The truth is that would make much more sense for how to design a robot, up until someone hits it with a hammer and puts a big enough hole in it to start bending though.

         
  4. Pasteur #

    Guru Pathik’s voiceover as Toph discovers the original metalbending claims:
    “Even the separation of the four elements is an illusion. If you open your mind, you will see that all the elements are one – four parts of the same whole. Even metal is just a part of earth that has been purified and refined.”

    My assumption was that earthbenders are capable of manipulating soil and formerly organic sediment – as they are able to bend clay, stone, and coal, but not lava. When Toph first looks into the metal, I assume the glowing spaces are literal impurities of formerly-organic-sediment that she is able to manipulate – and I assume these are common flaws in machines of Fire Nation construction, if we assume coal fires and ironwork. I focus on Sato’s use of “pure” over “platinum”, to mean that it’s been cast and set in an environment such that organic impurities would be rare-to-nonexistent in the makeup of the metal itself.

    Now, is there a “life” component to each of the four elements? If I had the organic chemistry background, I’d speculate as to the nature of Carbon in earthbending, especially in relation to the hydrogen in waterbending.

     
    • NotQuiteAtlas #

      The big flaw with your speculating at carbon/earth, hydrogen/water is that fire is not an element. It’s an exothermic reaction. And many elements are combustable resulting in fire.

      I do like that you brought Guru Pathik into this, though. The Turtle Lion even backed up what he said. All things are merely energy, and spirit bending came long before the other disciplines even coalesced.

      So is bending itself just general psychokinesis funneled through human context? The movements as a method of discipline and focus for what is a strictly mental task? A human anthropomorphizes rock as strong, so only someone who relates strongly to that characteristic can manipulate it? These are very fun questions to ask.

       
    • John Perich #

      True, the purity may be the more crucial factor. And platinum may just be easier to purify, or easier to work with in “pure” form, because of how little it oxidizes.

       
  5. Gab #

    I wonder if perhaps it has to do with familiarity with the metal, even on a subconscious and societal level. Toph was the first metal bender, and she was able to train a bunch of police officers, yes. What was she thinking when she developed the skill? She knew the metal she was dealing with, as would the police officers she ended up training. Platinum, as has been noted, is extremely rare, so would a metal bender even consider how to bend it? I guess what I’m suggesting is perhaps it’s a different technique to bend different types of metal, just as bending metal itself is slightly different from bending rocks/dirt, or how lightning is different from fire (but how earth benders can bend both of the former and fire benders both of the latter). Or how blood bending is different from water bending.* It’s hard enough trying something new, especially when the individual hadn’t even considered it possible before.**

    And that, of course, gets into the question of will already mentioned, too. Like I already said, in a rather under-think-ee way, I’m pretty certain someone is going to end up moving those mechas around with their bending powers for the purposes of dramatic effect, character development, story advancement, etc. But what will cause that ability to develop? Stubbornness, like Toph said in the original series? Perhaps something more like the calm needed to master air bending? The imagination of water bending? The passion of fire bending? Or a perfect balance of all of them, like what the avatar theirself is meant to personify? I hadn’t thought of it until just now, but if that’s correct, the Korra will probably be the person to do it. Perhaps as her way of proving to everyone (especially herself) that she’s worthy and ready to be the avatar.

    *I’m anxious to see how the lack of a full moon thing plays out, by the way.

    **Also, along those lines, perhaps “pure” really means “rare” or something. Since people aren’t used to platinum, it’s a “pure” thing in the sense that it doesn’t get messed with much by humans. Rocks, dirt, steel, they get messed with all the time because they’re so prolific, making them impure. Perhaps.

     
  6. Howard #

    Platinum would be a pretty terrible thing to build a giant robot out of – it’s very ductile and malleable. Not quite as malleable as gold, but close. It would make terrible armor, since any earthbender should be able to smash it.

    But anyway, from the stated reason it can’t be manipulated by the metalbenders, it’s true that platinum and iron (which I’m assuming is the metal being used) are both elements, but iron can’t be found in its elemental form in the ground. When it’s mined as an iron ore, it always comes out as an oxide. That strikes me as the most likely explanation – elemental bending involves manipulating oxygen in some way. The most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust is silicon dioxide. It’s also the main constituent of sand, and we’ve seen sandbenders in The Last Airbender. The production of iron from iron ore is done by smelting, so it makes sense that the Fire Nation figured it out rather than the Earth Kingdom separating iron from oxygen. Even if an earthbender could pull iron out from an iron oxide, the resulting metal would be “pure” iron, and therefore not susceptible to earthbending. Once it’s in that form, it would need to be melted down to be manipulated. Taking it one step further, the most common defect in smelted iron is, surprise, silicon dioxide, at about 1 part in 100. The visual cue of Toph figuring out metalbending is roughly in line with those proportions, so that would be my guess.

    The other types of elemental bending can also be explained with oxygen. Obviously, airbending is the manipulation of oxygen gas in the air. Water/bloodbending comes from the oxygen in water molecules. Fire/combustion is the result of a chemical reaction involving oxygen. The only one I can’t really explain is lightning. I suppose it could be splitting oxygen molecules to create a potential difference? But I don’t think that’s how lightning actually works.

     
    • John Perich #

      I like your theory! And scientists themselves are still undecided on how exactly lightning forms, so there’s room for your theory to fit.

       
  7. Jihgfed Pumpkinhead #

    It’s my first time commenting, but I thought I would raise a few points.

    (I have to admit I haven’t seen the episode in question. I’ve seen all of Avatar and Korra up until episode 6. I’m waiting to watch the rest with my cousins. Avatar is a fantastic bonding experience with younger family members, and I don’t want to ruin it.)

    The point of any system of elements (it doesn’t matter if Avatar has the classic four or adds a Spirit element that only the Avatar can access) is that it encompasses everything. If it didn’t, the elements wouldn’t be elemental. This is what both Empedocles and most medieval European alchemists believed (the latter add Quintessence, equivalent to Spirit in Avatar): the four elements were everything, and there was nothing that was not the four elements.

    If we imagine that there are only four elements, there is no way to make sense of the claim that platinum is a “purer” metal. In such a world, metal itself is impure: it’s mostly earth, with some other elements mixed in. It makes sense that it requires a weird technique to bend it, because it’s messier than earth is, because it contains more kinds of stuff. Incidentally this also explains why blood-bending and swamp/plant-bending is difficult: they are too messy and contain too many other elements.

    So the only things that are pure are the four elements themselves. Any object which is too difficult for any bender to bend is more difficult because it’s more chaotic, more diffuse, more entropic. So platinum is unbendable because it’s even “dirtier” than iron: it contains less earth.

    Of course this means that if you “purify” a metal enough, you could actually push it past the threshold and make it bendable by another specialty element. Airbenders could be aluminum benders just as Earthbenders can bend metal.

    Of course this ignores the possibility of a fifth element: Spirit if you’re the Avatar, Quintessence if you’re a 15th century monk. If we allow a fifth element, then “purity” can make some sense. Platinum is pure because it borrows from the spirit element. In that case, only the Avatar could bend it.

    That would be awesome.