I'm developing a story set 4-5 centuries after the fall of a high-tech civilization. The fall of said civilization is indirectly related to a loss of electricity. i.e. in the chaos of their technology no longer working like it should, they devolved into a scavengerpunk world. I'm toying with the idea of the loss of electricity being caused by some form of energy field disrupting the electromagnetic force and this field would do so by manipulating the electric constant epsilon naught.

Is this workable? I.e. can the field cause enough disruption to electrical devices without causing life to not exist? And if so, what other side effects on the environment would occur? E.g. would a campfire that would normally have an orange flame, now have a red flame because of a change in the atomic energy level?

A few specifications:

  • I don't need the field to turn the em force completely off, just disrupt tech enough so that it doesn't work

  • the field would be non-uniform. i.e. concentrated on one spot of the planet, radiating outward and subsiding so that a spot on the opposite side of the planet would still be able to use electricity.

  • the field would also be self-maintaining through the centuries, such that the resulting society on the planet wouldn't have been able to remake any electrical devices after the fall.

All the research I've done on this site and others address what would happen if the EM force was turned off completely, or what would happen if the fundamental forces were a few percent different and how that would affect the ability of stars or carbon atoms to form.

A few other articles suggested that an easier way to go no electricity would be EMP, grey goo, societal restrictions, mineral scarcity, or even simply say magic did it. one of the more interesting ones I saw was bacteria suddenly getting a taste for copper. And I may end up going with one of those instead of the electric constant way if it doesn't work.

But before I go that way, I would appreciate some feedback on the feasibility of an energy field disrupting the electric constant.


Okay. I didn't think it was possible to modify the electric constant enough to get rid of electricity and still have intelligent life, but I wanted to ask anyway. I'm probably going to go with a modified version of the grey goo method mentioned in What kind of event could stop electricity?.

Essentially, the nanotech will absorb any electricity it finds from any active power sources. But when those power sources are turned off, or stop working from a lack of maintenance, the nanotech still wants to absorb electricity. So without any power sources feeding them, they would draw energy directly from the world. And this will have the effect of making any new power sources produce less electricity than they normally would because the nanotech pulling electricity from everywhere would simulate the effect of having a dielectric superimposed over a vacuum. i.e. more resistance to electric flow.

To quote this page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permittivity

permittivity describes the amount of charge needed to generate one unit of electric flux in a particular medium.

A consequence of this would be that you could turn on a whole bunch of power sources, you wouldn't see any electricity output, but the permittivity would drop back down to normal because the nanotech is no longer drawing power from the world.

I also get that messing with the electric constant in this manner would affect lots of other constants, and I don't necessarily have an issue with this, as long as the effects are consistent. And I'm not really interested in changing the fine structure constant by as much as 4%, but to redirect my initial question, if the modification was small, such as 1/1000th of a percent, would there be any visible effects on the environment?

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    $\begingroup$ You might want to check out What would happen if electricity stopped working? $\endgroup$
    – user
    Dec 27, 2017 at 7:30
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    $\begingroup$ Please, use capital letters, punctuation etc. And what do you mean by "manipulating the electric constant epsilon naught"? You know that this constant is not some magic setting of this universe, but rather something that came up from equations, theory and so on. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Dec 27, 2017 at 7:39
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    $\begingroup$ This question feels a bit to me like asking "what would happen if the value of pi were changed?" - you can't. You just can't. $\endgroup$
    – Xenocacia
    Dec 27, 2017 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ The specific value of ε₀ depends on the particular system of measurement units. If you don't like the value it has in SI, then you can use one of the various CGS systems which either do away with ε₀ (for example, the CGS electrostatic system), or assign a special value to it in order to make Coulomb's law simpler (for example, the Gaussian system). $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 27, 2017 at 15:13

1 Answer 1


If you change the value of $$ \epsilon_0$$ you will end up affecting the value of the fine-structure constant $$ \alpha = \frac{1}{4\pi\epsilon_0}\frac{2\pi e^2}{hc}$$ where e is the elementary charge, c the speed of light and h is Planck's constant.

To quote this page

The anthropic principle is a controversial argument of why the fine-structure constant has the value it does: stable matter, and therefore life and intelligent beings, could not exist if its value were much different. For instance, were α to change by 4%, stellar fusion would not produce carbon, so that carbon-based life would be impossible. If α were > 0.1, stellar fusion would be impossible and no place in the universe would be warm enough for life as we know it.

Long story short: if you change epsilon, you don't have to worry about intelligent life any longer, and this include electricity too.


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