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I have been world-building a setting where a species of advanced aliens invades Earth, only to be forced off after the humans resort to guerilla tactics. In this setting, biological life is abundant in the universe, so Earth is not unique in that regard. The aliens are advanced, but not to the point where they have outgrown the need for raw materials. In the story I have now, the reason that the aliens have not wiped out Earth yet is because using nuclear/chemical/biological weapons of mass destruction might make the earth uninhabitable for a future harvesting operation. I have not determined what resource would best fit this role. However, I have discerned that it has the following properties:

  • It is inorganic
  • It actually exists in real life
  • It is in reasonable abundance on earth, but is rare throughout the universe has a whole
  • The material cannot be reasonably synthesized under all known laws of physics
  • It is valuable enough for an advanced civilization to fight a war over it, but not so valuable that the civilization cannot survive without it.

Which material, if any, would best fit the above criteria?

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    $\begingroup$ "reasonably synthesized" might be a problem here. The classic alchemy goal of turning lead to Gold is actually possible with current technology (fission, fusion, or irradiation) (though the economic profitability is WELL in to the negative). One serious obstacle to interstellar travel, at any reasonable speed, is an energy source of sufficient power. But in your setting, that has already been overcome. The main obstacle to being able to 'reasonably synthesize' elements is also an energy source of sufficient power. If you can FTL, you can synthesize. $\endgroup$
    – Harthag
    Jan 13 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ @SmartBulbInc A K2.3 civilization is not going to be slowed down by humans. Like, at all. It can't even be said to be an unfair fight, because humans couldn't reasonably put up any kind of meaningful opposition. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @SmartBulbInc this isn't "local town cops" though, surely... this is "tightly knit team of supergenius experts capable of multi-century planning and survival sent to secure the most valuable thing in an entire galaxy". Pretty certain they could Macgyver a fusion-driven cobalt bomb using the most basic skills for local resource exploitation, which would be a bare-minimum basic skill for an unsupported interstellar mission. Hell, humans could do that in a few decades, and there's a huge gulf between us an K2.3. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ One word... 😁 Memes - Non-organic (non-corporeal too). Actually exist in real life. In abundance (more than you could ever need). Not synthesizeable through known laws of physics (or nature, reason, grammatical correctness...). As for warfare... well, given that humans here have been willing to just about go to war over a soccer match... sure, why not? "That dress is blue!" "No, it's gold!" $\endgroup$
    – Samwise
    Jan 13 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ Two identical houses can have different prices. Why? Location. Maybe what is interesting for the aliens are the life conditions of the earth. Maybe they have similar needs in terms of oxigen, temperature, etc.. to consider a planet habitable. They could be interested in the strategical situation and not the resources. $\endgroup$
    – raulmd13
    Jan 14 at 10:23

15 Answers 15

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It is in reasonable abundance on Earth, but is rare throughout the universe has a whole

Let's start with a note on scale. "The universe as a whole" is bigger than we can even see, for various reasons. The bit we can see has something like 2 trillion galaxies in it. Each galaxy has hundreds of millions of stars in it. The notion that none of those stars have this unobtanium except for Earth is so phenomenally implausible that it just sounds like magical interference.

Let's quietly ignore the "universe" bit for now, though. Thing is, stuff produced in stars and supernovae gets spread around and mixed up quite effectively over time. The material the Solar System is made of isn't that special as there are plenty of nearby stars and star systems formed from the same source. Within the Solar System, the stuff that the Earth is made of isn't that exotic either... anything you can find here, you'll find some of in the rest of the inner Solar System (though maybe not so much in the outer Solar System). This means you could mine the Moon, or Mars, or maybe the asteroids or Mercury and find at least some of the same stuff, unless it was deliberately and magically placed only on Earth and nowhere else.

The material cannot be reasonably synthesized under all known laws of physics

Thing is, stuff that can't be synthesized under the laws of physics can't reasonably exist in the first place. Where could it have come from, if not from a physical process?

There are potentially some exotic things that could form in the early moments of the universe and be impractical to synthesize since then (such as cosmic strings) but they're not really "materials" and they're not really the sorts of things you might find "on" a planet.

the aliens have not wiped out Earth yet is because using nuclear/chemical/biological weapons of mass destruction might make the Earth uninhabitable for a future harvesting operation

It would take remarkably little to render the Earth uninhabitable for humans, but relatively safe for anyone with a little patience or indeed sufficiently high-tech protective equipment or dare I say it robots.

A few hundred tonnes of the right material wrapped around a few nuclear warheads would make a doomsday device that would handily kill most life on the surface of Earth, and leave the survivors without an industrial base to support them. An interstellar civilization could do this pretty easily, and have the wherewithal to detect hidden settlements using a range of techniques to hunt down stragglers.

It is valuable enough for an advance civilization to fight a war over it, but not so valuable that the civilization cannot survive without it.

(Warning: TV Tropes links incoming)

I think it pretty much has to be some kind of artifact, i.e. a constructed object rather than some simple material resource. Presumably it was built by the inevitable precursors, which is why it is of interest to civilizations which are substantially more powerful than our own but not actually powerful enough to replicate the artifact themselves.

Clearly whatever it is must be very tough (because it has survived probably quite a large span of Earth's history, which have involved a lot of big asteroid impacts and volcanic episodes) and potentially hazardous (because something has stopped the aliens cobalt-bombing the Earth into planet-cockroach).

All that remains is for you to think of a type of macguffin that fits neatly into your setting—an ancient AI; a better superluminal drive; the means for inter-universal travel; the answer to life, the universe and everything—and you're away.

Perhaps also consider that the biggest threat to the aliens trying to obtain the artifact will be other aliens. They might also be the biggest threat to the humans, too.

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    $\begingroup$ "because something has stopped the aliens cobalt-bombing the Earth into planet-cockroach" - prime directive / ethical core / xenobiologist lobby? $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 6:49
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak the question implies some practical (but probably spurious) interest in habitability, but doesn't mention anything about ethical considerations. $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 9:28
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps not ethical but judicial. Some galactic treaties have clauses depending on the presence of a sentient species evolved on a planet. As soon as the last native human dies, these clauses do not stop the other aliens from making claims anymore, and a galactic war about Earth would arise. $\endgroup$
    – Holger
    Jan 14 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ "It would take remarkably little to render the Earth uninhabitable for humans, [...]" - perhaps the alien species simply prefers a global average temperature 3°C higher ... $\endgroup$ Jan 15 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ @CemKalyoncu to quote my own answer, "and leave the survivors without an industrial base to support them". Remember also that humans are one delicate species with a very narrow window of survivable environments and acceptable nutrients, whereas "bacteria" is an entire vast domain with more species in more environmental niches than we've ever discovered. Wiping out humans is tricky, but not nearly as hard as you're making out. $\endgroup$ Jan 16 at 16:36
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Soil.

fields

It is nonorganic. It is super abundant here on Earth because Earth has been working on it for a few billion years. A global catastrophe could deplete the Earth of its good soil. You could replicate soil with chemistry and a lab, but not in the abundance you would need to really grow a lot of stuff.

Earth is an amazing place to grow autotrophic biological life.

/a future harvesting operation/

That is what these aliens intend to do!

They are farmers.

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    $\begingroup$ Most of what makes it soil rather than dirt/regolith are organic animals (worms, mites, etc), microorganisms (various bacteria), and organic compounds in the "organic chemistry" sense (nitrates and ammonium) $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 3:37
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, agree.. "good soil" has food in it. It depends on cycles related to the biome. Plant remains are converted, birds will thrive on worms, eat them, spread plant seeds etc.. Part of the food they leave may be anorganic nitrates/phosphates, but the biome is producing it. When the aliens would steal soil, they'll have 2 harvests and after that.. no go.. because there is no cycle. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jan 14 at 10:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Goodies I don't think this answer assumes they are stealing it, but rather getting rid of the pesky humans and then using it in place to produce food. Although how alien biology would interact with earth biology is another question... $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ @coppereyecat - just so! This is a universe where biology is common and the conceit here is that Earth is super nice for biology. I admit to prejudice. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jan 14 at 18:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk seems like a fair prejudice given the circumstances ;) $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 18:59
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Look at the stunning color variations, the beautiful discontinuity of the impurities, all the gorgeous minute imperfections! This, my dear gentlebeings, is a pristine certified-natural carbon crystal, retrieved with blood, eyes and tears from an uncivilized pre-synthesis (of course!) waterworld by the great M'gr!hgk^6 themselves!

None of this synthed nonsense you see all over, no no, this is the real deal! Comes complete with a provenance guarantee, a Millennium-class vacuum showcase, and a detailed 6D recording of its recovery!

Minimum bid set to six thousand credits! Do we have a first bid? Ah, six thousand one hundred credits from the seven-tentacled gentlebeing in the middle pond. Do we have six thousand two hundred? Right, ...

Your aliens are not scavengers or miners, they are high-class collectors. The more pristine and untouched the item, and the more story-worthy its provenance, the more valuable it is.

So, no nuclear weapons ("Do you have any idea what neutrons can do to an item?"), no planetary-scale strikes, and that collection flotilla had better not have a single synther anywhere, lest doubts be cast on the provenance of the items.

And, sure, you can just mine an asteroid somewhere, but that's just boring. It's not as if the 'roid would go anywhere. Nothing like saving a precious item, just before the barbarians on its homeworld destroy it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I read a story where certified hand-made items were the most valuable goods in the universe. Machines can make 8 billion cups of indestructible material, perfectly functional, for the cost of one hand-made ceramic cup. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jan 14 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ Cool rock. I need it for my collection. I bid 7000! $\endgroup$ Jan 16 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ Only 7000??? The legendary Frk'rlk saved it just as some barbarian was about to turn it into drills, of all things. Drills! Who in the frozen Cosmos turns pure-natural stones into drills? $\endgroup$
    – thkala
    Jan 17 at 9:20
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No FTL? No invasion. No physical trade.

The economics of sending even a trading ship would mean no mission would be sent. Time frames are on the order of tens of thousands of years(or more) and ships would cost trillions of dollars make this an economic non starter. The people who launch the ships would never see the benefits. There descendants might.

Additionally how could they possibly know that a 'natural' rare resource exists? The rational thing would be to assume a mostly uniform universe.

What resource could aliens want? Earth Culture.

Which material, if any, would best fit the above criteria?

Earth culture. Unique to earth. Not critical for survival of aliens, it exists. It is non organic. Earthlings fight wars over earth culture.

Is this worth Aliens sending non FTL ships to acquire? Not when they can ask/trade for large sections of it via photon based communications. Less risk, drastically higher return on investment, more ethical(from human perspective at least).

FTL changes everything.

IF FTL exists this changes everything. Then the music, art other intellectual property would be lucrative. Plants that were not toxic might be useful trade goods to provide new food items.

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  • $\begingroup$ To be fair, a K2.3 civilization could make a relativistic, laser driven, mag-braked lightsail spacecraft... might only take centuries of coordinate time, not tens of millenia. Maybe even equipped with an antimatter rocket for a slower trip home. Still hard to make a case for exploitation of resources in distant star systems, though, let alone invasion. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime centuries of coordinate time still means a generation ship (unless they're space elves / turtles), and the travelers will be left with no place to return to. Politically and culturally at least, but there's also a good chance of their race undergoing an extinction in the mean time. $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 6:58
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak the setting blurb in the question implies that they hibernate somehow, and their societies must implicitly be substantially more stable than our own. $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ “FTL changes everything”—only if we assume “faster” means “significantly faster”. A space ship travelling twice the speed of light still needs years between the closest stars and maybe centuries or millennia between the interesting spots like our and the alien’s home world. $\endgroup$
    – Holger
    Jan 14 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Holger if FTL works in any frame of reference, the round trip time according to a stationary observer can be made arbitrarily small, even negative. This is indeed a major argument as to why FTL is most likely impossible. $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 14:18
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Space with breathable atmosphere and gravity

What they need is lots of land with a Oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere. Sure you can make an enclosed space with a pressurized atmosphere, but imagine trying to that for something the size of a large city or bigger.

Everything you could ever want to do, is easier when you don't need a spacesuit, you have effectively infinite space, and gravity is provided for free. Its also quite helpful that a hole in a building or a fire is not a death sentence. You also wouldn't need to worry about things like recycling, just dump your waste in a big hole like those pesky humans are doing already.

So what they want is just the land, whether that's just for land for food, housing, or manufacturing they just need more room to expand.

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(Partial) frame challenge:

It's not that the item is SO valuable, but that those sent to retrieve it are expendable

A human society with excess resources and sufficiently advanced technology could, in theory, send out self-replicating probes; "von Neumann probes." But if your aliens have a different attitude about the value of individuals, well, organic beings are just self-replicating machines, right? Setting aside the difficulty of keeping organic beings alive (apparently, your aliens have solved this with long-term hybernation), and the energy required (Kardashev 2.3?), why NOT send (expendable) aliens to various destinations, even just to check and see if there is anything worth mining?

Why do the aliens show up with a small force, on a galactic timescale? It wasn't a big deal to begin with! That is, from the point of view of the civilization which sent the would-be conqueror/miners. The arriving aliens may be totally committed to fulfilling their mission, but that doesn't mean it was a significant (relative) sacrifice on the part of the larger civilization to send them. Maybe they're clones, adventurers, or less-desirables (low-caste, criminals, genetically defectives...), and mining a distant solar system is the best they could expect.

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    $\begingroup$ This was a part of my original idea. To the main alien's civilization, this invasion really means nothing in the grand scheme of things. The "invasion" force is less of an army set to destroy an equal foe, and more like a small city operation. $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 19:02
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Anything can be synthesized, but how easy...

Agree with Harthag's question comment, in principle.. in terms of elements, this question is a no-go when dealing with a really really high tech alien. They'll know it all. But in that case, why would they come harvest things on an inhabited planet ?

Rare Earths that are not really rare on Earth

On Earth, the most abundant rare-earth element is Cerium, which is actually the 25th most abundant element in Earth's crust, having 68 parts per million

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare-earth_element

Suppose we invented it, they didn't

Creating certain materials could be costly, and sometimes not obvious for aliens. When you'd have e.g. aliens that can't handle heat easily, humans could be handier with baking certain ceramics. Maybe the aliens never developed Uranium-based fission, they missed Plutonium. There may be human forged materials the aliens did not discover yet, because they e.g. don't have abundant Carbon or Nitrates on their planet. They discover the material when they discover Earth..

  • Graphene
  • Plutonium
  • Glass
  • Ceramics
  • Gunpowder
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    $\begingroup$ to be fair volcanic glass is fairly common. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 14 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ absolutely..... in Earthly circumstances it is common $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jan 14 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ European explorers were categorically more advanced than the Native American civilizations they encountered... but Native Americans had rubber. It does not matter if the aliens are more advanced than us in most ways, it is very unlikely for us not to have something that they did not think of first. They may eventually figure out how we make something they do not have, but it will not be obvious at first contact. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 14 at 23:08
  • $\begingroup$ Ah @Nosajimiki they could be looking for Cerium.. or water.. But the nice thing about human invented materials in this scenario is.. they'd have to steal it first, before killing us. Maybe they'll need humans at first, to create certain substances.. when carbon-related technology is poor, humans would produce e.g. certain valuable monomers and polymers, unknown to the aliens. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jan 14 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ I think you mean graphene or possibly graphite. $\endgroup$
    – Rosie F
    Jan 15 at 14:24
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How about reversing it?

What if earth doesn't offer something rare, but offers the near absence of something that is widespread and toxic elsewhere in the universe?

Let's say that all the earthlike planets are overrun with Beryllium, which is fairly rare on earth. Let's say beryllium is toxic to the aliens, and most of their crops have to be discarded because of beryllium contamination. But earth is largely free from beryllium, and this makes it a rare paradise for the aliens.

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    $\begingroup$ You would think that life on a planet where beryllium is abundant evolves in such a way it can tolerate beryllium. $\endgroup$
    – Abigail
    Jan 15 at 20:42
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The topology of this part of the universe was peculiar immediately after the big bang, and our solar system got more than its fair share of monopoles.

Some of them ended up on Earth.

The aliens have magical technology that can detect them, but not manufacture them. These monopoles are extremely valuable, they can be used to manufacture several different kinds of exotic matter... and you don't even have to dig down into the core of a neutron star to get them. You just have to scrape Ohio down to the upper mantle. Or maybe northern France.

I believe that this fulfills most of your wishlist, except possibly whether they're "real". They're theoretical, we don't have any of the things yet, and are unlikely to get any soon.

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    $\begingroup$ If we're sitting on a wealth of magnetic monopoles then it seems unlikely that we'd be unaware of the fact. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Jan 13 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Corey Without the magic detection tech, how would you even know? And keep in mind that "wealth" in this regard can be as low as "single digit numbers". I think the plot device in Dragon's Egg that starts the whole ball rolling is "we found one in a quarry in Africa". $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jan 14 at 13:52
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Reverse the decision, and consider that where the aliens come from they have a deficiency of a certain element. Though take into account that it would be far easier to mine it from a closer solar system than ours or even ignore us on earth and mine all they would need from Mars or the asteroid belt.

You may perhaps want to reconsider the non-organic exclusion. Since the universe we see is pretty much distributed well from the element producing supernova factories. this dust cloud has more or less the same ratios of that dust cloud. All solar systems are born from dust clouds.
A bad 90's movie with one of the better reasons for coming to earth was "I come in peace". The alien was a drug runner, harvesting endorphins. Point being, you don't want to kill off the drug producing inhabitants, and it's far more plausible that organic chemistry has produced something unique on earth. also drugs are bad, ie: not necessary though valuable.
PS: Even a low Kardashev scale II civilization is still incredibly more advanced than we are. We would still have no hope of defending ourselves against them.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is a lot of frog harvesting going on due to a specific hallucinogenic, so maybe yea, something that organic life makes that gives a good buzz. Also ties into things like abductions or cattle mutilations, for that thing that animals make that does the voodoo. Good jumping off point anyway. $\endgroup$
    – coblr
    Jan 14 at 4:18
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    $\begingroup$ I'm a fan of the idea their synthesizers are semi-intelligent and built in such a way that they refuse to make the illegal substances. The aliens are criminals on their own worlds, looking to turn the Earth into a giant drug lab like cartels in the jungles of Colombia. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jan 14 at 16:22
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Common sense, freely and honestly imparted.

It turns out that not only does Earth have life (which is common) and multiple sentient species (which are not particularly uncommon) and a technological culture (which is extremely rare), but it's the only planet in the Universe which doesn't actively hate the invaders so despite their initial faux pas there is still a chance that some working relationship can be established.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is nothing more uncommon ... $\endgroup$
    – Harthag
    Jan 17 at 16:46
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A material that doesn't check most of your requirements but could still fit your use case is clean, liquid water:

Water in itself is in abundance in the universe, however not all forms of water are useful for living life.

This material can be synthesized and we can extract clean water from ice which is abundant. However, for a civilization, extracting or synthesizing water for the entire population and on such a massive scale must be incredibly expensive. We're talking about potentially terraforming entire planets for the investment to be worth it. On the other hand, finding a planet that already has large volumes of liquid water is much much more valuable and cheaper to use.

Technically your civilization cannot survive without water. However as mentioned earlier it is in abundance in the universe. What is valuable is the scale and access of liquid water that your civilization has. So a ship crashing in a planet with large ice caps may extract enough water to survive. However your civilization will need huge investments to install a settlement there.

So civilizations will go to war to create their own settlements on planets with liquid water first before getting the ones with ice caps which are more expensive to use.

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A huge fraction of the universe is composed of just hydrogen and helium. Something like 98%

Of the remaining elements, they are produced in supernova or for a few the lighter ones, as the end stage of a star running out of fuel.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abundance_of_the_chemical_elements

Of the elements it looks like Ta is the least common.

You can go a step further in rarity by going for particular isotopes.

But remember that any element can, with enough energy be made. Doing this efficiently is left to the engineers.

With made materials you have some additional options. Right now probably the most expensive material per pound are semi-conductors. The cute epoxy box is much larger than the actual chip.

You can go for exotic properties too. High temperature super conductors. (We don't know how to make them yet.) Materials with very large electric charges baked in (electrets) Magnetic monopoles (Do they exist?) Perfect crystals.

George Gamow working with an an early theory of nuclear stability found a theoretical nucleus with a mass of several thousand, shaped as a donut. I don't think the theory is current considered credible. But consider if you had a ring shaped nucleus. Now make a chain of these with the rings linked. You have a material that is stronger by the ration of the strong nuclear force to chemical bonds.

Once you can make nuclear thread, you can either weave it to make nuclear cloth, or link to make nuclear plate.

It would have interesting properties.

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Humans

Just like humans collect birds, fish, snakes, and other animals, and are willing to pay large amounts of money for rare specimen, aliens collect species from other planets. The further away it comes from, the more space bucks they're willing to pay! A space ship full of humans will earn the crew a lot of money.

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  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps, but once the collectors have their specimens, it becomes to their advantage to wipe out all the "wild" ones to maintain their monopoly - this is what happened to the great auk $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Jan 15 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ @NoName Sure, if you are a collector. But the aliens visiting Earth aren't the collectors -- they're the traders selling to collectors. And the galaxy contains far more collectors than there are humans. $\endgroup$
    – Abigail
    Jan 16 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ "Collectors" includes the traders selling to the actual collectors. In fact, it's the traders specifically that would be the problem. If there really is that much of a disparity, there is no real difference between a few hundred and a few billion, except that the price would be exponentially higher for the smaller number. If we're lucky, the trader we get may abduct enough for a stable breeding population before nuking the planet, but it's far more likely they'll just nuke the planet after getting "just enough" $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Jan 18 at 11:36
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Humans have attained incredible levels of technology without unlocking the secret to FTL travel. By a similar coincidence, these aliens attained incredible levels of technology without unlocking the secret to integrated circuits and powerful computers.

In the first stages of the invasion the aliens hit major cities with orbital bombardment, not knowing that computers even existed. As a result, the fabs and most of the humans who know how to create them are dead - Gigahertz class computer chips became a finite resource overnight. However, in the ensuing conflict it became very clear to the aliens how useful computers are in war.

After they won, they incorporated human chips into their weapons, and are now scouring earth for computers, game systems, and phones to repurpose into the new intelligent weapons that they are exporting to the front lines of other conflicts they are fighting in the galaxy. Of course, given another 70 years, they could probably duplicate the tech to make chips by torturing captured scientists and reading our books. However, they don't need chips in 70 years: they need them now to win the war with the Zorblaxians

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