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In the near future on our own planet of Earth, an odd plague has descended from space. It affects glass. Any glass whether natural or man-made turns into powder. The chemical elements are the same, it's just like incredibly finely ground glass.

Glassmakers can melt the powder and turn it back into into glass but it just rots away again in a few hours.

Scientists are desperately trying to understand the phenomenon, could it be a bacterium that feeds on glass? Not really because the glass isn't chemically changed. They are of course handicapped in their investigations because their light-microscopes no longer have any lenses and lots of their other equipment relies on glass components.

Meanwhile the world is falling apart. Missing window glass is forming huge drifts of powder that blow around, ebbing and flowing like a glittering snow.

Mirrors have gone but of course vanity is not a priority for most people right now.

There are many, many items that contain glass that we used to take for granted in our daily lives.

Question

Assume that scientists aren't going to solve the problem in the next ten or even twenty years.

How well would we survive this catastrophe? Could we cope with the glass dust? Would our communications technology grind to a halt? (Think of fibre-optics for example).

It's tempting to say, "replace everything with clear plastic". However replacing the world's windows alone would take more than ten years even if it was possible. In any case plastics factories now lack light bulbs, windows, and all sorts of other things that are stopping them from working properly.

Assuming the problem doesn't get solved, where would we be in ten or twenty years?

REFERENCES

1. The affected glass is the substance described in the following:

Glass is an amorphous (non-crystalline) solid which is often transparent and has widespread practical, technological, and decorative usage in things like window panes, tableware, and optoelectronics. The most familiar, and historically the oldest, types of glass are based on the chemical compound silica (silicon dioxide), the primary constituent of sand ... A very clear and durable quartz glass can be made from pure silica; the other compounds above are used to improve the temperature workability[clarification needed] of the product. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass

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2. What is glass?

You can make glass by heating ordinary sand (which is mostly made of silicon dioxide) until it melts and turns into a liquid... sand melts at the incredibly high temperature of 1700°C (3090°F). http://www.explainthatstuff.com/glass.html

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3. Included in glass are natural forms of silica (with impurities): obsidian, lechatelierite, quartz, quartz glass, vitreous silica

4. Real Science: It's worth noting that, e.g. Obsidian already suffers a very slow type of glass rot before the glass apocalypse. This is the scientist's best lead so far in trying to find a cure.

Because obsidian is metastable at the Earth's surface (over time the glass becomes fine-grained mineral crystals), no obsidian has been found that is older than Cretaceous age. This breakdown of obsidian is accelerated by the presence of water. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obsidian

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    $\begingroup$ School chem labs are going to be a scary place for a while. Lots of chemicals mixing all over the place $\endgroup$ – Wil Selwood Jul 24 '15 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ I don't have time to write an answer but as a tip for others: There are clear ceramics that, for the right applications, would work just fine. $\endgroup$ – kaine Jul 24 '15 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ Does this apply only to silica based glass or to any material classified as a glass? $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 24 '15 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Green - thanks for that. I have added a technical reference to the question. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Jul 24 '15 at 13:21
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    $\begingroup$ Also, the way you're talking about this glass implies that it's only man-made glass that's having this problem, not natural glasses like obsidian. Could you clarify that too, please? $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 24 '15 at 13:29
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We'd survive it. Why? Because H. sapiens made it without having glass for a remarkably long time! However, that doesn't mean it would be pretty.

The first thing we would notice is that none of our traditional lights work! The only bulbs I know of that don't have glass in them are LEDs. This would force us to quickly cope with the inability to work at night. Fortunately, we don't have to worry about the fact that all the street lights went out: without glass, car windshields are just flimsy sheets of plastic, so it won't be safe to drive!

However, I think we would very rapidly begin making do. Glass, by your definition, is amorphous. Thus clear crystals would support a reasonable portion of the scientific needs for glass. They would not be perfect (every material we use is tuned to meet its goal), but we should be able to at least start peering at the issues of glass rot. Thankfully, I believe the lenses used in photolithography of silicon are not made of glass (fact check?) so at least we'd be able to continue making LEDs.

I would expect a sudden interesting period regarding power. It is not immediately clear whether any given material in powerline management is glass (some use ceramic insulators, others use glass). Some equipment has glass windows that are now open to the air. The rapid jury-rigging of the power grid would be a major concern.

As a scientist of the age, I would be very interested in the state of our fiber optic cables. Those glassy fibers are sealed up tighter than a drum! If they rot, that would give me a remarkable amount of information as to what the cause of glass rot could not be. This is especially true for any splices which happen to be undersea (I don't know if we actually have any, but it's theoretically possible). Splices are done with an optically transparent epoxy, so there could be sealed glass fibers thousands of feet under the sea which are fully encased in plastic! Sounds like a source of information to me!

Parting thought: The only thing keeping the lions in their cage at the zoo is glass... oh bother.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting note along with fibre optics some hard drives have platers made from glass. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_disk_drive_platter If the rot can get in to a hard drive casing this could cause quite a few problems, but as you say seriously limit options for what it could be. $\endgroup$ – Wil Selwood Jul 24 '15 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ Fiber splices (which are in undersea cables) are actually made by fusing the glass ends together with an awesomely named machine, and arc-fusion splicer. If we used an epoxy, the density (refractive index) wouldn't match and there would be significant reflection at the splice, much like between water and air (which are both optically transparent). It's basic physics and is the entire reason fiber optics work in the first place. Finally, there are quite a lof ot glass components in electronics (fuses, diodes, etc.) and mains distribution (insulation), which would otherwise power the LEDs. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 24 '15 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel - You can get index-matched epoxies for optical use. I suspect fusion is used for reliability reasons. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jul 24 '15 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast It's not for splices. Fiber optic cable is made of two types of glass with different indexes. A higher index core and a coaxial cladding. You can't match that structure with epoxy. Fusion is used to maintain the indexes and structure, it will not work otherwise. Epoxies are for termination only, never splices, it breaks continuity. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 24 '15 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ The outer cladding of an optical fiber isn't typically glass, of any kind. There are some non silica based glasses out there - I'm not sure exactly how they would react in this scenario, and these are also used in optical fibers instead of silica glass. $\endgroup$ – Baldrickk Aug 14 '18 at 15:11
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How well would we survive this catastrophe?

Initial impact:

1st world countries would be affected the most and have the hardest time at survival because of their reliance on technology/industry. While most computers and servers would not be affected the monitors would disintegrate making using one near impossible. As mentioned, glass in buildings would be destroyed, but there would only be a minor injuries and a few deaths since the glass rot isn't instantaneous:

[glass] rots away again in a few hours

People would probably notice the glass breaking down and most would get to a safe location, or at least move away from windows/buildings. I believe people would remain living at their homes and just cover window spaces with something else (plastic?). In aircraft, there would be some deaths initially but once the rot was discovered I believe most people wouldn't attempt flying a plane in high altitudes (flying should still be possible). Sea vessels would be mostly unaffected.

In the long run, many of the technology and science-based jobs would go away. There would be scientists trying to find cause/solution to the rot, but this would only be a small percentage. Currency would probably revert back to hard coin or trading. There would be several million lives lost in this transition probably as most people's life savings would 'disappear' (if it was stored in a bank) and this would cause rioting, looting, etc. Order would still eventually be restored by those with the biggest stick, the military or militias of the countries. Communication would still be up (see 3rd question). Electricity would still be around and there are LED lights. There are thousands of other electronic devices that don't use glass that people would still have access too. Society wouldn't completely collapse, just approach the brink of destruction.

3rd world countries would be affected, but it wouldn't be as extremely life changing for them as those in 1st or 2nd world countries, it might be easier.

To note food and clothing will hardly be affected. The only thing that might differ is the distribution of these products. Some rioting and protests.

Could we cope with the glass dust?

Yes, its dust/sand. The glass came from here on earth, and the wind would blow it to wherever wind goes, I don't think there will be a major effort to clean it up.

Would our communications technology grind to a halt?

No. Some communications would break down, but there are plenty of ways to communicate: radio, satellite (unless the rot happens in space), and various forms of cables not made of fibre optics. Then there is the post office (pony express if need be) or communicating face to face.

Assuming the problem doesn't get solved, where would we be in ten or twenty years?

We'd continue technology advancement and probably develop other clear materials to use in place of glass. Computers monitors would be remade, and we'd pick up from where we left off, maybe a couple of decades behind in a few aspects.

Glass alternatives

Minerals: Fluroite (more of an example that minerals can be used as optics), quartz, plastic(not as good a lense as glass but works)

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    $\begingroup$ As for the glass dust silicosis is a prettys erious condition. We glass dust as an abrasive in bead blasters so breathing it in, especially since it would be quite literally everywhere, would be quite hazardous. $\endgroup$ – kylie.a Jul 25 '15 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ i believe the wind would keep the dust in certain areas, where its windier, so just avoid those areas, or wear a mask. $\endgroup$ – depperm Jul 27 '15 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ That might work in rural or natural areas but the highest concentration of this glass dust will be in cities where windows were plentiful. The majority of people live in cities so just avoiding the areas where everyone lives is not really possible. It's possible entire suits would need to be worn in areas like Manhattan. A respirator to protect the lungs, googles for the eyes and possibly some kind of outer jumpsuit to prevent irritation and cutting from wind blown glass dust. I imagine being covered in the stuff would be quite unpleasant. $\endgroup$ – kylie.a Jul 27 '15 at 14:41
  • $\begingroup$ How does glass cause your life savings to go away? "There would be several million lives lost in this transition probably as most people's life savings would 'disappear' (if it was stored in a bank) and this would cause rioting, looting, etc." $\endgroup$ – fi12 Feb 23 '16 at 1:05
  • $\begingroup$ @fi12 My understanding is much of today's money is digital. With glass rotting away there wouldn't be any way to view how much money you have in an account. Banks couldn't check and only have a certain amount of physical cash at a location anyways. $\endgroup$ – depperm Feb 24 '16 at 16:23

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