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(This is a "hard sci-fi" chemistry question.)

Silicate glass is malleable when hot, stiff at human-compatible temperatures, transparent, and chemically inert. It's cheap and easy to make, perhaps even by lucky accident. As such, it gave humans indoor sunlight, bottles, lenses, chemistry equipment, fiberglass, etc.

In a universe where silicon is much less helpful, with properties no better than boron or germanium (whichever is worse for any given application), how would humanity reach those technological milestones (if at all)? What would they create instead, and how available are the raw materials?

(All other elements retain their existing properties. I am not marking this hard-science, but references for particularly interesting claims would be appreciated. )

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    $\begingroup$ Are you assuming that the only thing affected by this is silicate glass? If the properties of silicon were different enough to cause glass to to be weaker/harder to work with, surely this would also mean significant differences in the most common minerals of the earth's crust, silicates, feldspars, etc. If these were weaker or softer, it would drastically change the landscape, alter building construction, and much more. $\endgroup$
    – barbecue
    May 12, 2023 at 4:17
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    $\begingroup$ Pure silica glass, aka fused quartz, is actually quite hard to make, because it only melts at around 2000 °C (4000 °F). Windows and bottles are not made of that; they are made of soda–lime glass, which contains about 70 to 75% silica, about 15% sodium oxide, about 10% calcium oxide, and possibly some alumina. This is the cheap and easy to make material, melting at around 700 °C (1300 °F). (And please note that it is silica, silicon oxide, not silicate.) (Germanium oxide can be melted into a transparent glass just like silicon oxide.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 12, 2023 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ @barbecue is correct here. Many of the same structural properties of silicon dioxide that make silicate glass useful are also significant to the geophysics of a large number of minerals, which would in turn have a major impact on geography and the usability of many types of stone as building materials (I would expect granite and sandstone especially to be much less useful). $\endgroup$ May 12, 2023 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Theodore they're the primary component of Earth's crust. Making them significantly rare would be no less drastic a change than changing their properties. $\endgroup$ May 12, 2023 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ One thing you may not be aware of, optical flats in metrology to verify for flat surfaces. I am not sure what you would replace them with but without a way to verify that a reference surface is sufficiently flat, that rules out a lot of technological development. I don't know if you can replace that with some other transparent non-glass materials because they have to be very flat and precise. It is used with a monochromatic light source...which also requires glass. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    May 12, 2023 at 20:33

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Where the clarity of glass isn't required, there are plenty of alternatives... lots of ceramics out there and not all glazed finishes require silicon. It might make stuff like enamel impossible to make, but the rules are yours and not mine so I can't be certain there. There are other minerals that can be drawn into fibers suitable for reinforcing things if not conducting light (basalt and carbon spring to mind, though the latter was invented for the production of electric lightbulbs which is much harder in your world).

For basic optical things you can use mirrors. Newton was credited with making the first reflecting telescope, but the possibilities of curved mirrors were understood in the Book of Optics which was written a thousand years ago. Reflecting microscopes have been a thing for nearly a hundred years (there's a potentially relevant article in Science from 1950 which is paywalled because of course it is) but in the absense of glass lenses they might well have been investigated much earlier.

The lack of windows though, that's much more serious. Not only does housing become gloomier and colder, but working hours for many kinds of task become sharply limited in places where there's sometimes a bit too much rain or wind to have open windows and artificial light isn't a suitable replacement for daylight. And speaking of artificial light: no lightbulbs, and use of lamps and lanterns will be sharply constrained by things like wind and drafts and will be somewhat more hazardous. Early transparent plastics were notoriously flammable, and things like LEDs are less than a hundred years old so that's a broad swathe of time with inadequate lighting.

Whilst there are natural transparent minerals like calcite and fluorite they are crystalline rather than glassy, which means mass production is difficult because large crystals have to be grown sloooooowly and cannot be nicely blown and shaped and moulded but must be ground. Fluorite is also soluble, so whilst it is an excellent materials for optical lenses you do have to treat it carefully. Calcite has odd optical doubling effects too, so even if you could grow it quickly and cheaply it is not a drop-in replacement for glass. Neither is conveniently inert like glass.

Transparent ceramics are much better, but they're awkward things to work with which is why they didn't pop up in the real world until the 60s when GE made some lights with clear alumina instead of glass. Some things like synthetic spinel have only very recently been successfully turned into products.

Acrylic resins and polycarbonates and other clear polymers might get you there eventually (alongside things like LEDs which started appearing at the turn of the last century), being a little older than transparent ceramics and much easier to work with, but they're still modern materials that are the end product of a mature industrial civilization build on hundreds of years of scientific advancement, all of which would be slowed by the absense of inert clear materials. There's nothing to say that they couldn't be discovered in boring-silicon-world, but it'll be much harder.

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    $\begingroup$ Weren't early windows made of thin leather? To let (some) light in but keep air out? $\endgroup$ May 12, 2023 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ @MooingDuck I did wonder about that, but it is very much a "better than nothing" sort of option, and I'd be worrying about the rats nibbling it. You might be able to do something similar with waxed or oiled cloth, but from memory this tends to get mold or algae growth that makes it more and more opaque as time goes on. With a sufficiently advanced solarpunk tech base you can use transparent wood... $\endgroup$ May 12, 2023 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ Carbon-arc lamps don't require glass (or fused quartz, or any other form of transparent envelope). $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    May 13, 2023 at 7:09
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    $\begingroup$ The article you linked has a copy available freely from archive.org: scholar.archive.org/work/jft4lueojbdfhlc4pblq3i4fgq/access/… $\endgroup$
    – isaacg
    May 15, 2023 at 0:31
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Bit of a frame challenge, because it is too long for a comment:

Your civilization would drastically differ from now... because there would be no civilization. In fact, there probably wouldn't be life at all, of if it were, it would be unrecognizable.

The issue here is that to change the fundamental properties of silica (or other compound of silicon) you would need to drastically change physical laws. For it not being transparent strong inert material it would need to stop being a covalent crystal. For that you would need to either change the electronegativity of silicon and/or oxygen, or change the geometry of the chemical bonds. Either would require the change in how fundamental forces work...

One could think you could instead prevent silica from being discovered. But that is also problematic. Both silicon and oxygen are extremely common elements, and decreasing silicon content on Earth would change the average density of the planet and thus our gravity (I don't have to explain why messing with oxygen rates would be a bad idea). And if you don't remove silicon from the environment, silica WILL be discovered rather sooner than later. It is after all a possible byproduct in metalurgy. Not to mention there are natural sources of it.

The only believable answer for why woud civilization is not using glass would be if they decided they don't want to use it, for example for religious reasons. But that is kinda far fetched, as silica is extremely useful material.

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  • $\begingroup$ the asker did ask for not hard science $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    May 12, 2023 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ @user253751 But he did ask for "hard sci-fi" and chemistry. Neither allows magic, which is the only plausable means to explain his changes to the world. $\endgroup$
    – Negdo
    May 12, 2023 at 14:14
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Daily life wouldn't be all that different:

  • indoor sunlight - an open window, with a metal screen to keep out bugs, can work almost as well
  • bottles - containers can be made from wood, stone, leather, etc. With the right coatings you can make things hold water and other liquids, resist corrosion, etc.
  • chemistry equipment - as with containers, lack of glass won't stop progress, just slow it down a little
  • fiberglass - a modern material and there are plenty of alternatives, whether for building boats or insulating buildings

And eventually people would figure out how to make clear plastics. That eventually gives you clear windows in houses, and more importantly windows for cars and airplanes. Plus it gives you clear bottles and a lot of other things. Not quite as good - e.g., most (if not all, I'm not a chemist) plastics will not be as impervious to chemicals as the best glass, but good enough for most purposes.

But there is one key difference: lenses

Without glass, you don't have:

  • microscopes - seriously affecting the development of biology, medicine and some other scientific fields, as well as microelectronics.
  • telescopes - seriously affecting the development of astrophysics, from Galileo onward.

Medicine will be the most affected. Without visible support for germs as well as in-depth examination of lower level biological functions - blood cells, cancer, you name it - medical science, and as a result the average lifespan, will not increase nearly as rapidly as it has in the past few centuries.

The computer revolution would only very slowly progress beyond 1950s mainframes, because it will be much harder to develop integrated circuits without microscopes and related technology. The microcomputer revolution depends on integrated circuits to make machines small and affordable. And on the other end, supercomputers depend on integrated circuits for high speed because speed is related to size.

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    $\begingroup$ "an open window, with a metal screen to keep out bugs, can work almost as well" - you must live in San Diego :) $\endgroup$ May 12, 2023 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ Before mass production of moulded glassware, our Victorian ancestors used pottery (stoneware) bottles and jars. It was cheaper to throw and fire clay containers, than hand-made glassware. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    May 12, 2023 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ Winter - close the windows, light some candles. Not ideal but people would do that at night anyway no matter where they are. But during the warmer parts of the year, screens will let you have the windows open because that will keep the bugs out but let light in. Remember, until a few hundred years ago only the rich had window glass at all! $\endgroup$ May 12, 2023 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ That's greatly narrows the scope of the the specific words used: "Daily life wouldn't be that different: indoor sunlight - an open window, with a metal screen to keep out bugs, can work almost as well". You're kind of just brushing off the significance of the advent of artificial light. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    May 12, 2023 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ Looking around I see a carbon arc lamp does not necessitate glass. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    May 12, 2023 at 20:46
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You'd lose a lot of ceramics too

Most ceramics feature a silica-rich silicate glass matrix with a dispersed crystalline solid phase. The classic one is porcelain, but even most high fired stoneware is somewhat glassy.

Sintered oxides provide one workaround.

The good news is that there is a workaround: You could make sintered oxide ceramics and glasses. They would be much more expensive, but you can do it. For niche applications, you'd need to make more pure silica glass than we do today (you still have that, right?).

You'd probably have a lot more composite cement materials

Composite non-glassy ceramics are going to be much more useful in this environment. Short fibre reinforced cement, etc. It won't be translucent, though.

In summary

Civilisation would still advance, but it would probably have a much slower progression through the early modern and Victorian eras.

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People used thin layers of horn for windows. Or parchment. Or paper. Something they did not discover was that you could make wood transparent with little more than sodium hydroxide.

You could use mirrors instead of lenses, or grind lenses out of clear crystal.

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  • $\begingroup$ The important part of the "transparent wood" is mostly just some resin, which needs to be transparent by itself. So I guess the discovery of these resins is what helps us here. $\endgroup$ May 14, 2023 at 23:37
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Currently we can make synthetic crystals in small quantities, at extreme expense. We can also find crystals in nature but they are rare enough to be expensive. Since you are already altering the laws of physics to make Silica worse, how about you also make sapphire or diamond easier to make/find? Have large natural crystal formations that your society has learned to etch/carve/carefully-split into useful shapes to replace glass.

  1. Clear windows are common, but never uniform in size as they have to match the size and shape of the polished/fractured crystal they were made from. Skylights are more common to let in more light as ground floor windows are usually made from metal screens, or thin paper. The metal and paper can be bigger and in more consistent shapes, with the lack of light being accounted for in the odd-shaped crystal skylights.

  2. Bottles are made of wood or metal in most cases

  3. Instead of one generic material for petri dishes and chemistry sets; chemists and biologists have multiple sets of different materials for different uses, (various types of crystals, and metals, eventually some plastic.)

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Look at Japan's history. For most of it, Japan only imported small quantities of glass and made relatively little of it domestically. The Japanese found alternate ways to do many of the things the rest of the world used glass for.

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We would HAVE to evolve faster. Our brains would be used more and we'd never even need mobile phones or computers. We would still find a way to make them but they would just be options for fun stuff like music and games and porn when we wanted our brains to rest a bit.

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    $\begingroup$ Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. $\endgroup$
    – dreamforge
    May 13, 2023 at 22:59

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