Imagine a slightly more advanced modern day world where space flight was starting to commercialize. Imagine that all of a sudden laws changed and the only thing different is that no computer worked. This is sort of the premise of my new world: there is no personal computer.

Additional Details

No transistors allowed. There may be large mechanical computers that are inconvenient and cumbersome to use ala ww2, but it's something very special to be able to use. I really don't want to do this with magic but doing it with societal or social pressures is out of the question.

Question Restatement

Is there some edit in the laws of physics or chemistry to increase the minimum size of transistors from 5nm IRL to, say, 2 inches without breaking humans, life, everything else? Is there any natural-law that could accomplish this effect?

If such a thing is impossible and I need to find some other non-natural constraint(magic or something), could you please take the time to show why?

Intent Clarification

Say you're a citizen in this universe viewing the new stack exchange through your 4d VR headset. You wake up one day to find your computer isn't turning on. Not just that, but your phone and anything that relies on digital circuits isn't functioning.

Say you were a system administrator of the laws of physics and you couldn't force society to make any taboos. It's just a cost-benefit type calculation. The goal here is to make it more efficient for humans to try getting mentally good at calculations than it is to keep trying to make computers more advanced than, say, the colossus mark 1.

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    $\begingroup$ Upon reading your extra details, is is essential that computers simply stop working during the early space commercialization phase? I.e., do you need to alter physical laws that previously allowed computers? $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Feb 20 '15 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ If you end up not doing it with physics, a variant of what Charles Stross used in his Laundry series might work. A core premise of this series is that if you have computers that are too fast, they summon Cthulhu. Pretty much literally. Our world has just barely reached the level where Things are starting to take notice. You could postulate that space travel has awaken Something and we now need to destroy all existing computers or else it will eat us up. $\endgroup$ – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Feb 20 '15 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ If you pulled this off, I'd summon relay computers. 1/2 inch part capable as several transistors. Essentially unbreakable by altering physics laws unless you don't like magentic fields at all. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Feb 20 '15 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ But they allow spacecraft computers sufficient for flight control just fine. It just can't navigate. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Feb 20 '15 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ Comment answer 'cuz it's mostly just pointing at a book: Alastair Reynold's Terminal World dealt with this by having the laws of physics in certain zones render matter (on the nuclear scale) so "coarse" that high-grade electronics, then lower-grade machinery, then even biological life just stopped working due to the pieces no longer fitting together right. It's been a while since I read the book, but the gimmick was that the weave of of space-time in lower "zones" causes atoms to pop out of place, as it were. $\endgroup$ – plagueheart Feb 22 '15 at 1:58

10 Answers 10


Computer Grey Goo

The problem with messing with laws of physics is everything tends to tie into everything else. Which is why something like changing the speed of light messes with atomic structures, so it's really hard to think of a simple change that will only make minor modifications like this.

Instead, take a limited Grey Goo scenario with out-of-control nanotech, but have it eat only most known computing basics - silicon transistors, vacuum tubes, etc. Maybe it's a holdover from a previous civilization on your planet, a weapon of some kind that ended up spreading everywhere.

So your planet has to look for alternate technology, but if they try anything easy/standard it turns to mush in a few days, vastly limiting computing capability. This allows mechanical computer, but anything standard won't be viable.

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    $\begingroup$ This has the bonus of raising an interesting "to what end" question about the gray goo designers: Why would they make a gray goo that just destroyed computers? And, did their own civilization collapse because of it? $\endgroup$ – plagueheart Feb 22 '15 at 2:01

Semiconductors are fairly vital to electronics. If you made them (largely silicon) rare, or harmfully reactive to your environment/people, that should be sufficient. Computers wouldn't be impossible, but they would be prohibitively expensive.

That would have a side effect of killing pretty much all electronics, not just computers. The lack of silicon would also likely inhibit glasses and ceramics.

A more targeted (and magical) solution would be to disrupt the behavior of quartz. Quartz clocks are used to synchronize the timing of the processor and other parts of the computer. Without quartz working like it does, there's no high precision clock to synchronize the parts, unless you want to use atomic clocks... which aren't great for personal computers.

This solution would likely impact broader sections of the world, but less severely. Outside of electronics, I can't think of an application where we couldn't make due with less precise timing mechanisms.

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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately you can't make silicone rare. Knowing its power, people would be willing to extract it from rocks. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Feb 20 '15 at 21:39
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    $\begingroup$ Eliminating quartz oscillators pretty much just makes it more tedious to have accurate clocks. They are convenient and high quality, but as far as computers and electronics go there's plenty of other ways to go about it. $\endgroup$ – Anton Feb 20 '15 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Telastyn en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_oscillator has a list of circuits. Only the Pierce Oscillator uses a crystal. The thing is that the crystal only tunes the circuit to high quality; it's not in charge of the oscillation. $\endgroup$ – Anton Feb 20 '15 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ Get rid of quartz clocks and now you've got a boom in digital asynchronous logic circuits. $\endgroup$ – Michael Feb 21 '15 at 1:20
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    $\begingroup$ Quartz clocks are not that critical. I worked with in a lot of microcontroller projects which didn't have one. A well calibrated RC oscillator is suitable for a lot of jobs. $\endgroup$ – vsz Feb 21 '15 at 22:02

To completely make electronic computers you really need to make at change at least 2 physical laws. Thermionic emissions (used in vacuum tubes) and a variety of quantum effects used in transistors.

Since alternate quantum equations would change everything we know (and the calculations are far from easy). I would suggest you take a non-physics approach.

I would recommend it as a religious taboo, with a nice inquisition style control, few will pursue violating the edict. You could also have side plots associated with heretics if desirable.

Read up on the history of the transistor and you will see that making this work required some serious technological breakthroughs, which would be hard to do if such research was forbidden.

Vacuum tubes computers are easier to develop, but hard to hide because of power consumption, heat generation / cooling requirements.


OK, so you need to kill off all computers say in the year 2025.

Grey goo -- already mentioned, whether lab mistake, war, or harmful mutation

Worldwide change imposed by outside conditions that kills computers: Alien interdiction field, different region of space with different physical laws, etc. -- lots of sf does not really attempt to explain the details of physics in such situations.

A physics experiments introduces a phase change in the laws of physics.

Worldwide EMP due to tremendous solar flare -- destroys all the high-tech infrastructure so rebuilding takes a long time, lots of other consequence at the time (collapse of society). Of course, wiping out all computers is going to cause a societal collapse too. Does not prevent eventual rebuilding of course.

Invasion by aliens (perhaps the equivalent of Saberhagen's beserkers) whose goal is to destroy all electronic computation.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I'm more concerned about transistors and the taboo scenario is out of the question and I've edited the question to reflect it. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts. Can you please explain or at least list the quantum effects used so I can justify the magic type scenario better? $\endgroup$ – Nyarmith Feb 20 '15 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, beyond my ken. My engineering background never got me into quantum. Your world, but I would be more interested with a non-magical explanation unless magic is incorporated throughout. Grey goo is a good alternative to taboo -- without the possible intrigues. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Feb 20 '15 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ I should add one thing, since transitors are based on quatum effect, e.g., "holes" in a silicon due to doping, it is impossible to change physics in this way -- the transitors works at the atomic level. The lower limits are based on accuracy of depositing the right materials and the errors introduced when the working feature get so small that failure becomes likely due to effects like cosmic rays, etc. -- maybe this helps. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Feb 20 '15 at 20:39

The problem with removing digital electronics today or in the near future is that we'd basically be back in the stone age. All major forms of transportation and communication would cease to work, and all of modern society would be disrupted as a result. Those living in poverty conditions or undeveloped land wouldn't even know anything happened, though.

The most plausible scenario, in my opinion, is one that may occur in the near future, for real. This theory is the polar shift theory. Basically, every so many tens of thousands of years, magnetic north and south juxtapose over approximately a thirty year period.

The last one would have happened before recorded history, and there would be little to show for it because there was no digital equipment then. There's magnetic evidence that this has happened before, and scientists monitoring the world's magnetic field say that it is getting unstable (preparing to flip again).

This would increase the effects of the Sun as the atmosphere behaves differently, but it wouldn't necessarily be fatal to life on earth. Regardless, the magnetic fluctuation could be severe enough to knock out all but the most shielded devices, effectively destroying all digital equipment.

Older vehicles would still work, but all communication would be lost. The effects would be temporary, but would last a generation or two. Internal combustion wouldn't be affected, but compasses, radio signals, etc, would be useless. We would go back to the stone age, for all intents and purposes.

This is probably the least destructive situation that could occur that wouldn't particularly destroy everything else, but provide the general effect you're looking for.

No change in the laws of physics are required, only a significant change in the earth's magnetic field.


Specifically going after transistors, I'm pretty sure the phenomenon you want to target is the band gap. I can't really make up some specific changes that would be required, but if you could remove the band gap that would, in essence, turn all semiconductors into plain conductors. This would kill any and all transistors (along with diodes, solar panels, etc.) while leaving most of everything else unchanged.

Primary caveat is that depending on how you decide to do this you might also be messing up most of chemistry and chemical bonding etc. One shouldn't mess too much with quantum physics.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting, that's initially what I thought, but I have no idea what the implications of enlargening the band gap would be in all other applications. $\endgroup$ – Nyarmith Feb 21 '15 at 0:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Nyarmith Enlargening it will make materials insulate more, but that could be compensated for by increasing the voltage (I think). Removing it will make semiconductors stop working, but now that I've thought about it some more it may also do some funny stuff with ions and the like. $\endgroup$ – Anton Feb 21 '15 at 0:44
  • $\begingroup$ There are also a lot of semiconducting materials. Altering the band gaps of every one will certainly impact chemistry and biology including ways that we aren't even aware. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker May 20 '15 at 2:04

No laws change needed. You can use material polymorphism. Carbon as element can exist as graphite or diamond, now we know it also exists as fullerenes and carbon nanotubes. So the same element can exist in many different forms with vastly different properties. Diamond is transparent, extremely hard and a semiconductor while graphite is black, soft and a conductor. You can change graphite to diamond by applying heat and enormous pressure.

Some forms are more stable as others and if both forms come together, normally the less stable version will be converted to the more stable version.

What is staggering is that it looks like new forms of the same material can appear and disappear. Paroxentine as a medicine had a curious case: They had first an anhydrate form. Then another concern invented a process to create a hemihydrate form and patented it. Both forms were produced and then it was found out that seed crystals from the hemihydrate form will cause the anhydrate form to convert. This was first not found to be a problem, but then it came out that seed crystals (one molecule is enough) were now over the world, so everyone producing the unpatented anhydrate form need only to wait to get the patented form !

What you can do is that a company deliberately or unintentionally produced forms of silicon and germanium which are no more semiconductors, but unfortunately more stable and transformed all computers to junk.

I do not know how long do you need to have this scenario because there are many other semiconductors. It will be solvable at last, but it will put out the computer industry for something like a decade.


If you're looking for one thing to change, what about changing some property of semiconductors? For example in your world, if an digital signal is applied to a semiconductor at a cycle speed above, let's say, 60 Mhz, the semiconductor material turns into dust.

I don't know if this would necessarily require your transistors to become larger in order to do any kind of computing. But it would bring modern computing to a screeching halt.

I really am not very familiar with the science behind this, and certainly know of no natural process that could cause this. Some evil genius could figure it out.


Two thoughts:

  • Some form of environmental contamination on a global scale that makes purifying silicon into wafers extremely difficult-to-impossible. If can't grow large crystals because of contamination, then VLSI becomes impossible.

  • Some form of radiation (from a nuclear disaster or from outer space) that interferes with transistors but still allows for tubes and relays.

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    $\begingroup$ You could still use germanium though in place of silicon. It's not as good but was used in a lot of early work. I wonder if you could modify these 2 ideas so that all accessible Si was too radioactive to make functioning ICs from - the radiation would be a source of electrical noise. $\endgroup$ – Chris H Feb 21 '15 at 19:33
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, good idea on the contamination front! However, could you please give an example or link to what kind of contamination would creating wafers? I know nothing but math/compsci. $\endgroup$ – Nyarmith Feb 22 '15 at 19:46

The quantum effect comes down to how strongly the nucleus holds on to electrons. An element is defined by the nucleus, how many protons it has, and every nucleus arrangement results in layers of electrons, that fall into a kind of lattice like pattern. The lattice shape determines how strongly the outer most electrons are held and how strongly the element wants to acquire more electrons, in order to complete its lattice shape.

Semi-conductors happen to land in the middle of the road, their nucleus holds on neither too strongly nor too weakly to the outermost electrons. Take a block of semiconductor elements and add a few particular elements into it. Ones that want to complete their lattice grab electrons away from the semi-conductor. Ones that have completed their lattice but have an extra hold on to the extra very weakly and give it away to the surrounding semi-conductor. Make a pattern of where you add elements that grab electrons, relative to elements that donate electrons, and you have a transistor.

That's a pretty basic thing -- how strongly an element holds on to electrons. You basically lose chemical reactions if all elements hold on to electrons with the same strength. Life ceases, reactions cease, you just have a dead universe.

One weak spot would be preventing the making of the pattern. If you can't make really small patterns, then you can't make really small transistors. But that's basic lenses and light.. up until you get down to very small stuff. So, around the year 2000, I believe, things started going to extra-ordinary lengths to get ever smaller patterns. Many believed it was the end of Moore's Law. So, could freeze things circa 2000.. laptops were suitcase sized, the internet was slow.. no mobile data, cell phones where huge..

As mentioned, there's also purification. That was the breakthrough that made transistors possible. If you have random elements all through the block of semiconductor, then you can't make areas that have donated electrons versus areas that have a deficit of electrons. You need to have areas that are only semi-conductor and have only one kind of "dopant" element in it. So, perhaps just tweak the effect that they use to purify the silicon. It could be posited that if it isn't very pure, only have large transistors can be made, because a large area is needed to drown out the impurities (not a perfectly real scenario, but it might fly in fiction :-).

Or, there's also radiation. Small transistors are easily disrupted by a single alpha particle. In fact, DEC invested nearly in billion in development of a wafer-scale integrated processor, which failed because the glue they used inadvertently emitted alpha particles, which disrupted the memory and it computed the wrong answers randomly.

Hmmm, of course, shielding is easy, so that's not a reasonable path..

Let's see.. there's metal adhering to the semi-conductor, to make wires.. That might be a weak spot..

That's about all I got!

  • $\begingroup$ I'm sorry but I'm confused about your section on "preventing the making of patterns". What mechanism would limit the making of smaller patterns? $\endgroup$ – Nyarmith Feb 22 '15 at 19:43

1) A strong enough electromagnetic pulse could wipe out sensitive unshielded electronics worldwide.

So, worldwide EMPs on a regular basis would accomplish the ends you are after, if you're willing to handwave a little.

For a start, all power generation could be blown, and long-distance power-lines could fry.

Also, all electronics in factories that created chips and electronics would be wiped out and would need to be retooled. Those factories typically take billions to make... assuming the knowledge is available. But with all knowledge on computers, pow, you're back to the days of books. If you're in a world where books had been completely superseded, then most knowledge on superconductor manufacture is in the heads of those engineers still alive, and in whatever electronics and storage media that happened to be shielded at the time, and some of the stuff that was turned off.

Most hard drives are pretty well shielded, but you can handwave that since the interface boards are not, and if all drives are solid-state by then, then everything gets wiped.

Rebuilding to a state where you could create complex computers in heavy shielding would take time: decades, perhaps. It's taken us less than a hundred years to get this far, and we'd already have a base of expertise to carry us this time, as well as infrastructure, so I'd estimate perhaps 40 years until we were back where we were.

Given the devastation and crash, people would be reluctant to trust computers again, and there may be laws or cultural mores against creating them, or at least in putting too much trust in them. So that could slow the recovery.

This is true however you perform your destruction of computing.

If you just affect silicon, you'd just cause some other semiconductor to be used, Ga, GaAs, GaN, AlGaAs, InP, etc.

If you affect semiconductors in general (band gap, etc), you'd just cause people to switch to some other form of femto-switching.

Either way, space travel would be the last thing people would worry about or fund, because of the greater challenges closer to home.

2) Oh, here's an approach that could work. The Singularity happens, the internet becomes an AI, and to prevent any competing AI from evolving, it immediately annexes all semiconductor plants and bans anyone from having or using electronics (enforcing its demands by its control of the world's' nukes). So you have a highly technological AI interested purely in self-preservation, migrating all computers in the world to safe bunkers in each country, removing humans except for maintenance and data entry, etc.

The rest of humanity is back to the 1800s, and re-adopts the fashion of wearing top hats and riding dirigibles.

[Edit: Neither regular, powerful EMP pulses not a Singularity are technically a change to the basic laws of physics per se, and I can think of no such change that would accomplish this. In fact, any change to the basic laws would have such far-reaching effects that the mere loss of computers would be a triviality. Like asking "how can I eliminate the use of the word 'like', just by changing some basic laws of communication?", there is no change you could make at the basic level that would affect something as exceptionally specific, without also utterly destroying the language as we know it. Changing physics as we know it would have such deep and far-reaching implications that I don't think any author could even begin to describe its effects even slightly realistically. This is definitely sledgehammer-nut territory.

Not only that, but while you can kill semiconducting digital computers, the idea of computation can't be switched off merely by altering physics, any more than a change to physics could get people to give up on transport that uses wheels, or combat that uses blades. Even if you could find a way to prevent wheels, knives and semiconductors from working, people would just invent something essentially similar: tracked vehicles, spinning sawblades, nanotech gearing systems. You can't put the computation genie back in the bottle using only a change to physics.

Instead, you need a social lever for the change of physics to push on, to discourage people from approaching (or trusting) the digital technology any further, and those social levers are the things I've tried to explore in my suggestions.]

  • $\begingroup$ This is a good idea, but say you were a system administrator of the laws of physics and you could switch these laws on or off at will. How would you just condition society to give up on the idea of making digital circuits in general? $\endgroup$ – Nyarmith Feb 22 '15 at 19:44
  • $\begingroup$ Tried to address this in an edit to my answer. Basically, physics is the wrong tool to affect computation, let alone the concept of computation. $\endgroup$ – Dewi Morgan Feb 22 '15 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ I updated my question to clarify the intent. I don't want people to actively shun technology. The specific result is more of "nothing is turning on" than some new celebrity president thinks phones are bad for people and starts a religion or whatever. $\endgroup$ – Nyarmith Feb 22 '15 at 20:19
  • $\begingroup$ For nothing to turn on, an EMP would work, but changing the laws of physics to make electronics act like an EMP had gone off, wold also affect other things like, say, our brains (we'd die), the sun (we'd die), and so forth. Serious sledgehammer-nut territory. Now, if you want to put in something that's a really fine specific clause, like "any mechanism that is used for computing will go boom", then that's not physics any more, it's magic. $\endgroup$ – Dewi Morgan Feb 22 '15 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ Well, changing the laws of physics from what they previousy were is magic. The intent is to avoid any direct physical intervention such as EMP bombs and rather have something indiscernible in the universe change that prevents electronics from working. It will be magic, but the thing that changes could at least make sense. $\endgroup$ – Nyarmith Feb 22 '15 at 20:37

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