16

In a science fiction story "Schedule" by Harry Walton, June, 1945, Earthmen trade for a substance callled "bismullah", mined on Rhea, a moon of Saturn.

And I assumed that that bismullah was the element bismuth, until I noticed the spelling difference.

Bismillah is an Arabic phrase "in the name of Allah". And Bismullah seems to be an alternate spelling of bismillah.

So I wonder if the substance bismullah is just a fictional science fiction substance or a real substance.

5
  • 4
    Normally I’m all in favor of questions that can be answered in a web search. In this case it seems like a dictionary lookup is sufficient. If it were real, I expect someone would have put it into a dictionary or Wikipedia by now. If we still feel like answering this here, then doesn’t it at least come close to being a real world science question? Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 7:06
  • I've swapped substance for science so as not to overspecialise with a new tag. Share and enjoy.
    – AncientSwordRage
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 9:07
  • 3
    @ToddWilcox I don't think it's outrageous to think maybe it's a spelling that disappeared since the 40s, or a non-English word for something that Walton used that never made it into English references (esp if it was an Arabic word, which uses a different writing system). Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 16:31
  • 12
    Bismullah? No. We will not let you go.
    – jcm
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 11:59
  • 1
    There's also the possibility that it's the name of the ore, not the valuable element in the ore, the same way bauxite doesn't sound anything like aluminum. Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 16:14

4 Answers 4

31

In the story bismullah is described as "a radioactive rare earth". None of the rare earths have this name, or anything close to it. However, by 1945, when the story was written, one rare earth element had yet to be discovered (and named): element 61 now called promethium (Pm). So either bismullah is Walton's suggestion of a name for element 61, or a completely fictional substance.

7
  • 3
    And, oddly enough, all of promethium's isotopes are radioactive.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 21:35
  • 2
    @EvilSnack In this story, the bismullah was used in face cream. Not advisable with promethium! Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 23:02
  • 1
    You say that in the story it is described as a radioactive rare earth, and it's used in face cream? Maybe it's not as bad as promethium would be, but I'd steer clear of slathering anything notably radioactive on me.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 23:26
  • 11
    @ClaraDiazSanchez That didn't stop them with radium.
    – J...
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 1:12
  • 8
    @EvilSnack in the early XX century people were adding radioactive stuff everywhere en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_quackery
    – user28434
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 8:45
5

Out-of-universe reason

Before globalisation and before the Western world had the level of contact with and information on other cultures they do nowadays, it was common to borrow names that sounded "exotic" to the writer's - and reader's - ear, in order to denote something similarly exotic and otherworldly. It's highly likely that this was why the word ended up in the book, and that bismullah is an alternative transliteration of bismillah - maybe even the most common at the time, just like Moslem used to be the preferred transliteration for Muslim and Koran for Qur'an.

As a side note, the original Arabic that the transliteration comes from looks like this when spelt out:

بسم الله

And also has a Unicode symbol for the more calligraphic script that it usually appears in throughout the Qur'an:

Actually, technically, the Unicode version corresponds to the more complete version:

بسم الله الرحمنِ الرحيم

Most commonly translated as: In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful

1

“Bismullah” doesn’t match the naming pattern of chemical elements, but in the story, it might be a trade name for some compound containing rare-earth elements. Either way, it’s fictional.

On top of being a pun on bismuth, you mention it’s used as a cosmetic. As I understand it, one time Arabs often say “bismillah” is when they leave the house, which they likely would do soon after putting on their makeup, and it can also be used when admiring something beautiful. (I’m sure there are many nuances that I don’t understand.)

4
  • 2
    This is the same "bismillah" used in "Bohemian Rhapsody"?
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 15:48
  • 2
    @Barmar Yep, it means "in the name of Allah", a common opening for prayers.
    – Martheen
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 16:29
  • 3
    @Barmar I don’t know of another. If one were to absolutely insist on trying to make literal sense of the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody”: someone might be saying “Bismillah” because he’s a Muslim trying to begin a journey. In context, he could be declaring his intent to leave, and being told, “No! We will not let you go!”
    – Davislor
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 16:36
  • 2
    FWIW, Freddie Mercury (aka Farrokh Bulsara) was born on Zanzibar, which is predominantly a conservative Muslim region. However, his parents were Parsees (Zoroastrian), and he went to an Anglican school, but he was most certainly familiar with Muslim culture, so it's hardly surprising for him to use the term "Bismillah" in Bohemian Rhapsody. See bbc.com/news/world-africa-45900712
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 5:54
0

In the story, bismullah is "a radioactive rare earth" mined on Rhea and used in face creams (!). The story was written in 1945 when the standards for realism in SF were still very low. (It is true that it appeared in Astounding which was better than most for taking care with the science in stories, it was still 1945 when most of Campbell's great writers were still involved in the War and not writing SF.)

Isn't the most likely explanation -- albeit an out-of-universe one -- that Walton was looking for a name and the word "bismullah" popped into his head and he thought that that sounded pretty good and sort of scientific, and went on writing?

"Bismullah" is not the common name of any real substance in use in 1945, and certainly not that of any radioactive isotope.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.