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You are an evil person, and you have a Paradox Free 9000 Time Travel Ray Gun(tm). Sadly it came with only one shot left. You can pick one person in the last 2000 years to shoot and kill at any point in their life. A shot instantaneously vaporizes the person, leaving behind ash.

Your goal? To stunt technological growth as much as possible without intentionally and directly reducing population†. You also want to be as sure as possible that this will stunt it significantly, so killing off somebody who discovered a concept that most likely would have been discovered by somebody else soon after (perhaps elsewhere in the world) might not be the best choice.

Who would you kill?

† For example; killing somebody in order to start thermonuclear war or killing somebody to increase the death toll of the Black Plague would be off the table, even though these both might stunt technological growth.

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  • $\begingroup$ Killing anyone before about 900. A.D would stunt population growth massively due to the butterfly effect. Am I allowed to ignore that. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Jul 20 '16 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Bellerephon As long as your motivation isn't "I'm just trying to reduce population to accomplish it." I put that caveat in there so it wasn't just a contest of reducing as many people as possible as early as possible, but instead was specifically targeting the development of technology. $\endgroup$ – Nex Terren Jul 20 '16 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ The person doesn't have to be someone who directly made an advance, right? I'm suddenly worried that my answer's invalid. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jul 20 '16 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ Mine is based on one fact any scientist will freely admit to - want to stop progress? - Just cut funding... $\endgroup$ – Joe Jul 20 '16 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Ultimater If you're not trying to be pedantic, I was humorously implying that the paradoxes are outside the scope of this question. Technically any change to the past would never result in exactly the same state of the universe that kicked off the change to begin with, always creating a paradox; you need not find specific narrative points. $\endgroup$ – Nex Terren Jul 21 '16 at 1:20

24 Answers 24

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For anyone you choose on the basis of making a special contribution which nobody else could have made, you might just as well choose their mother[*]. This is tedious, so let's close the door on that. What's needed is a scenario where the assassination itself stunts technology, and not the mere absence of the person assassinated.

What event could realistically prevent Europe[**] from crawling out of the dark ages high middle ages and blessing the planet with the Reformation, Enlightenment, capitalism, the Industrial revolution, globe-spanning empires, the industrialization of slaughter through world wars, and all the other good stuff technology-enhancing stuff we're trying to get rid of?

If you are of a dramatic turn of mind then kill Martin Luther, as close as you can to the precise moment of his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1520 and in a public place. If the ray gun doesn't produce enough sound and light, put on a bit of a show to make sure everyone gets the point.

The Catholic Church now has an objective demonstration that the Pope is is right and everyone else can shut the hell up[***].

Of course there's no putting the genie of European Empire back in the bottle by killing one person. And it's not like Catholics never invented anything -- of course they did, a lot. But empire operated under the assumptions of pre-reformation Papal authority is a very different and less vibrant thing than empire (even Catholic empire) operated under the religious/intellectual/political contest between Catholic and Protestant. You don't need progress when you have certainty.

Furthermore, a contest between Catholic Europe and (say) Chinese or Japanese empire just results in Europe winning due to the (albeit not massive) edge it already has. What's needed for the most technologically-productive conflict is schisms within the most technologically advanced culture, at a time of empire-building. So you have to stop Protestantism, and although it's still extremely difficult, your best chance is not just by deleting one person, it's by making a statement.

Couldn't there be conflict within Catholic Europe? Of course there can be and there was. But look at how Spain and Portugal divvied up the Americas almost politely and mindful of their obedience to monarchs and the Church. We attribute rapid technological progress to big conflicts of ideas.

[*] well, I suppose unless you choose someone born before 16AD and assassinate them after 16AD. But you get my point.

[**] I will point out that opinions vary here. In The Years of Rice and Salt Kim Stanley Robinson wipes out the whole of Europe, 99% of white people, in the Black Death, and still doesn't much retard modern technology. We can of course question his historical insight, or say that his alternate history is intentionally allegorical and therefore artificially similar to ours, but the Locus award and nominations for the Hugo, BSF and Arthur C. Clarke awards all say that it'll do for fiction!

[***] plausibly enough for fiction -- of course I'm being somewhat flippant, since there are political inevitabilities that potentially could drive a schism from Rome regardless of the odd punitive miracle. It's not as is Luther was the only person ever excommunicated for defying Rome, so with only one shot you're riding your luck whether it'll serve as a deterrent or not.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea you bring up with the first paragraph, and in that it's a unique twist to the idea with a fresh approach. $\endgroup$ – Nex Terren Jul 21 '16 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I'm not totally confident I've thought up the best possible assassination for the job but I stand by the first paragraph :-) I was inspired by pipe's answer, mentioning that Princip needs to be killed when the plot is already well underway. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 21 '16 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ Well stated, a content society is one that is unlikely to change and one that is content because of the certainty of papal authority and fearful of change is even less likely to advance in any line of thinking. $\endgroup$ – boatcoder Jul 21 '16 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for using the effects of the ray gun, not just what would happen without the influence of the removed person. In a public place, in front of a large audience, while holding a speech about religion, being visibly vaporized could have huge effects just for the shock value itself. "Wow! He must have been blasphemed as he was hit by a bolt of divine retribution!" $\endgroup$ – vsz Jul 22 '16 at 6:17
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In short, it doesn't matter. The nature of science is such that it is a group effort.

Killing any one person, be it Edison, Tesla, Newton, Darwin, Galileo, Hawking, Bohr, Curie, (etc etc etc etc) may temporarily reduce scientific progress in a singular field but it will not overly adversely affect the progression of scientific development in the long run.

The greatest scientists know "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants"

This gets more and more true the later in history you try and off someone. The nature of modern communications technology makes science an even more group focused and narrowly specialized universe.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree that offing scientists won't help, but capital is not a group effort and without it the sciences would be hindered much. So if you find a point where a single person lead to diverting capital to scientists you could delay technological development significantly. Maybe aim at a liberal pope? $\endgroup$ – Angelo Fuchs Jul 21 '16 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ @AngeloFuchs: or a secular ruler, if there's someone who really set a standard for rulers to patronise science and technology. Charles II of England gave the Royal Society its charter and patronage, which helped set the tone of the enlightenment in Britain, but that's probably very parochial of me to suggest him rather than a Holy Roman Emperor or something :-) $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 21 '16 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ The question isn't "How do I prevent things from ever being invented?" It's "How do I stunt technological growth?" If you kill someone and it delays inventions by many centuries, you have succeeded at this mission greatly. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Jul 21 '16 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @AngeloFuchs: The answer I wrote (which was to bump off the first Abbasid caliph As-Saffah) is basically along these lines. $\endgroup$ – Michael Seifert Jul 21 '16 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ @daniel - If you kill someone and his scientific peer that was contributing to the same field invents the same thing a few days later, you've failed horribly with this mission. As this answer states, scientific research and invention is rarely an individual effort. Darwin was but one of three people with his theory of evolution...killing him would simply mean the theory of evolution came out under someone elses name a bit later, not delaying it by centuries. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Jul 21 '16 at 20:08
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Johannes Gutenberg

Gutenberg is famous for his development of the printing press. The printing press was important for several reasons. It helped humanists in the high Renaissance spread their ideas. It brought religion to the masses.

However, most importantly, it made it possible for scientists to share their ideas widely. When the time came for Newton and others to write, they had all the tools they needed to make sure everyone knew about their work, so people could improve and build on it, spearheading the advancement of science and technology.

Kill Gutenberg and this development is a lot harder.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure about this one. His may have been the best, but the press had been invented several times before, and didn't catch on for various reasons. His did partially because the time was right - perhaps suggesting that if you ashed him, another would shortly invent it anyway. $\endgroup$ – Richard Rast Jul 21 '16 at 1:49
  • $\begingroup$ If he was killed, wouldn't someone else have invented it instead? $\endgroup$ – Karl Gjertsen Jul 21 '16 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ They had movable type printing systems in China long before Gutenberg came around. Gutenberg also did not work alone. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Jul 21 '16 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ @KarlGjertsen A reasonable objection, but you could say that about essentially every other suggestion here. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jul 21 '16 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ But that is the thing about killing individuals who have invented an item or were the first to do something, someone else will always take their place. $\endgroup$ – Karl Gjertsen Jul 21 '16 at 13:53
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Well, the obvious person is Isaac Newton. Not just for the things he discovered and created, but for advancing the whole idea of scientific method and a scientifically explainable universe. However, much of his work was on things that others were interested in, and while losing him would delay things, it would not stop much.

I think you might delay technological development rather more by killing off Michael Faraday. His discoveries underlay the whole development of electrical technology. Others would make the same discoveries in time, but if you can delay them by a few decades, James Clerk Maxwell may not create his theory of electromagnetism, and there have been very few people so talented as to be able to do that in his place. And without that, electricity and electronics don't become a scientific field of engineering, and all sorts of things can't happen.

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  • $\begingroup$ Could have taken Galilei just as well. And then some others. Newton already was more in the science-as-group-effort-phase of history, removing him would not have changed that much. $\endgroup$ – Chieron Jul 21 '16 at 7:47
  • $\begingroup$ Could of course add that he pretty much invented calculus - ie. the use of integration and derivation - in mathematics, which is basically the way you break down an observed physical phenomena into math and create formulas. $\endgroup$ – Baard Kopperud Jul 21 '16 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ Newton was one of the inventors of calculus, but Gottfried Leibniz also invented it at about the same time, and his notation and methods are the ones we use today. That was part of the reason why I didn't pick Newton. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Jul 21 '16 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ But if you killed Isaac Newton, we wouldn't have gravity! ;-) $\endgroup$ – Karl Gjertsen Jul 21 '16 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Chieron : killing Galilei would probably have sped up science instead of slowing it down. In many ways he was the very opposite of a scientific mind, he ignored every proof against his theories and viciously defended anything which would prove his theories, even if they were blatantly false and proven so by his contemporaries. He was right in the Earth orbiting the Sun for all the wrong reasons. He claimed for example that the tides have nothing to do with the Moon and are caused instead by the Earth moving, just as water is sloshing around in a barrel if the barrel is moved on a horse cart. $\endgroup$ – vsz Jul 21 '16 at 14:37
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Kill Muhammad before he is able to grow Islam.

Islamic scholars were quite advanced in the European Dark Ages. But they were only able to advance so easily because they were, generally, at peace with each other. Wars were going outward, not inward. Therefore without the spread of Islam, there wouldn't be as much technological development in the Dark Ages.

No Islam means no conquest of Northern Africa and Spain, which means no invasion of France, and no Battle of Tours. Charles Martel's victory at Tours allowed him to extend control further south, which ultimately led to his grandson Charlemagne forming the Holy Roman Empire. No Islam, no Holy Roman Empire. No HRE, and we've completely shifted the balance of power, the borders, everything in European development. Hell, without the HRE there would likely be different families in power and therefore different alliances, and the long string of familial alliances was one of the reasons that World War One got so big. It's a less direct impact, but it would still have quite a significant impact on technology.

Going into the future, no Islam means that Christians never lose control of Jerusalem, which means no Crusades. The Crusades were a major spark to technological development, because it was the first time since the Fall of Rome that large numbers of people were travelling all across Europe, visiting the Middle East, hearing stories of civilizations far beyond, etc. @Joe made an excellent point with how Marco Polo and the Silk Road sparked trade and innovation, but Marco Polo wouldn't have gone exploring if it hadn't been for the stories told by people returning from the Crusades.

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    $\begingroup$ Historically inaccurate. Islam was one of the major downfalls in middle eastern 'dark ages' lasting to this very day. You'd probably speed up technology that way. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_Golden_Age) $\endgroup$ – Fayth85 Jul 20 '16 at 22:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Fayth85 I'm not sure I follow. The Islamic Golden Age wouldn't have happened without Islam. The House of Wisdom in Baghdad wouldn't have been built without Islam. It worked because the area was ruled by the same culture, same religion, same languages. Without the Caliphates, there wouldn't have been enough flow of information for the Golden Age to really take off. $\endgroup$ – John Robinson Jul 20 '16 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, but what comes after that golden age? I just wanted to be sure you understand what I'm talking about. They were invaded, then a holy man decided that the Qaran is the only way, and they shut down all those learning centres and plunged the Islamic world into their own dark ages. $\endgroup$ – Fayth85 Jul 20 '16 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the idea to disrupt single-person-dependent cultural phenomenon, -1 for overvaluing the islamic golden age compared to the destruction their conquest brought in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Chieron Jul 21 '16 at 7:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Fayth85 Yes, but by then Christian Europe was emerging from it's own dark-age, and able to build on the work by Muslims. After all, the important thing is that Muslim scholars kept the ideas from ancient Greece alive and built upon them - while they were censored/destroyed by the Christian Church. Without someone to hold onto this knowledge - nor an external enemy for the Church to focus on - the Church's suppression and destruction of such ideas and knowledge, would've been much more complete. $\endgroup$ – Baard Kopperud Jul 21 '16 at 13:00
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Who?

Gavrilo Princip

Гаврило Принцип

Huh?

Under the assumption that the war efforts forced a rapidly accelerated advance in technology, and the most accepted immediate cause of World War 1 was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, it makes sense to kill his assassin, Gavrilo Princip.

Without a first world war, it's likely that the events causing World War 2 would not take place, and continuing that track - preventing the cold war, which presumably caused the race to space. Every war has a complicated beginning, but if Germany had not been so heavily taxed and fined for the losses in World War 1, Hitler would not have been able to gain as many followers among the common Germans.

Thus, assassinating Gavrilo Princip would in one shot prevent1 the following:

  1. World War I
  2. World War II
  3. The Cold War
  4. The Space Race

When?

If the assassination of the assassin takes place just before he is about to fire the fatal shot, the plans will be uncovered, and no one is likely to be able to take his place and finish the job. This may just be enough to prevent a coup, instill sympathy for the Archduke, thus cementing his role - whatever that may have been.


1) Of course, in the boiling kettle that was pre-war Europe, the war would likely have started anyway. It's difficult to guess about the future - it's equally difficult to guess about a past that never happened.

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    $\begingroup$ World War 1 was not caused by someone no-one cared about shooting someone else no-one cared about. If I set up a bunch of dominos infront of a stampede of rhinos, the cause of the last domino falling down is not the 2nd last domino falling on it, nor is it the first domino hitting the 2nd, nor is it one of the hundreds of rhinos that happened to hit the first domino. The cause was me setting the dominos up. $\endgroup$ – Scott Jul 21 '16 at 5:27
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm... well is there any way you could keep Germany from being heavily fined after World War 1? That might prevent the incentive that triggered WW2. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Jul 21 '16 at 7:16
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    $\begingroup$ No no, Gavrilo Princip was the time traveler sent back to stop the war Franz Ferdinand started! $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jul 21 '16 at 7:40
  • $\begingroup$ While it is not unlikely that the first world war could've been prevented this way, why the space race? Prestige would've driven it just as well were it to happen between Europe and America. The war killed off many whose potential discoveries we do not know about and wasted resources that could've been spent better elsewhere. OTOH, a war would likely have happened at some point, but maybe only the equivalent to the second world war. $\endgroup$ – Chieron Jul 21 '16 at 8:01
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    $\begingroup$ @pipe although a clever answer, an assassination attempt might well have had the same impact the actual assassination did, do you really want the plan to be known? $\endgroup$ – Jared Smith Jul 21 '16 at 16:32
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Genghis Khan, strangely enough.

The European Renaissance started (partly) because of scholars fleeing the weakened Muslim capitals after the Mongols went around destroying everything. Those who could took shelter in Constantinople, the rest fled further west towards the Mediterranean.

Having no leader to unite them would leave the Mongols as a minor annoyance in Central Asia, rather than a force that weakened, if not destroyed every empire in their path.

Even Constantinople fell after the plague (brought by the Horde) and incessant war against the Horde raids left them vulnerable

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  • $\begingroup$ Also, with reference to Joe's answer: no Genghis Khan means no court of Kublai Khan in China for Marco Polo to visit and return to Europe to describe. There would be some Jin dynasty court instead, of course. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 22 '16 at 0:23
  • $\begingroup$ This would be an even better answer if there was a link between prominent minds and Khan ancestry, since he's known to have spread his seed more than any known person. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Ford Jul 22 '16 at 4:01
  • $\begingroup$ @NathanielFord: 1 in every 600 people is a direct descendant, IIRC. That would be an interesting genealogical study, if anyone ever got round to doing it--provided there were enough DNA samples and historical records left. I don't think Temujin's grave was ever discovered. $\endgroup$ – nzaman Jul 22 '16 at 6:29
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I agree with James' estimation that Science is a group effort, but- Inventions are often best fueled by profiteering, or by defense. I'd go with Marco Polo on this one; without him, there would have been no medieval growth based on spice trade, no silk road, no legends of riches in the orient, no search for a northern passage, no Magellan, and of course, a long delay in "new world" discovery... possibly Europe would have remained in the dark ages without that spark...

I think without Marco Polo and his opening trade, there would have been no renaissance, or subsequent technological advances.

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    $\begingroup$ oh, and no gunpowder in the west... $\endgroup$ – Joe Jul 20 '16 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ Lacking Marco Polo wouldn't have impeded anyone else from doing this, though. Just because he was first doesn't mean he brought something extraordinarily difficult to replace to the table. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Ford Jul 21 '16 at 2:54
  • $\begingroup$ @NathanielFord You're absolutely right - but the question was 'stunt development', someone would have eventually made his way to China, someone would have invented the printing press...but if all that happened was a 1 century delay, we would now be living in pre-radio days... $\endgroup$ – Joe Jul 21 '16 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ @NathanielFord but nothing stopped others from opening the road while Marco was doing it. Sometimes it seems like anyone could have gone exploring, while in reality very few actually do go. $\endgroup$ – boatcoder Jul 21 '16 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ I don't mean by this that it's a bad pick, since it's certainly plausible that Marco Polo telling his stories to Rustichello was a pivotal event not easily repeatable. But for all answers including my own I think it's interesting to consider who else could have filled in for the chosen victim. You might actually have a slightly better chance of success killing Rustichello -- more than one person went to China, but only one person wrote a staggeringly popular book about it. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 21 '16 at 23:59
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John Locke

By bringing the modern notion of Democracy and the Theory of Mind into being, he is the single most influential thinker both in a scientific realm, and a realm that would ultimately influence other science.

For technological progress to occur, a lot of people need to work together. One of the reasons cited for the success of democracy is that it freely aids that cooperation by assigning ownership of the rewards to the creators rather than the ruling class. John Locke not only provided the basis for this sort of governmental structure (directly influencing the American Founding fathers, bringing about that nation and all of it's startling technological progress during the Industrial Revolution), but was an early and vibrant empiricist (thus forwarding the framework by which scientific progress has seen it's most explosive advances), but he also laid out the most well known functioning theory as to how thinking works in the first place (allowing for meta-optimizations on the process of scientific development). Finally, he developed a theory of property that allowed for more efficient exchange of goods and services, thereby greasing the wheels for scientific progress.

In short, there is little in the modern framework - the framework responsible for the last several centuries of advancement - that Locke did not touch and in many ways was directly responsible for. In each of these categories another actor might have stood in, but for one person to embody all of them together seems unlikely, as such a person would likely have been a contemporary known to Locke. Because so much technology came out of the last few centuries, we would have to go much further back to find someone as broadly influential.

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In my opinion your best off killing one of the Ancient Roman or Mediaeval philosophers. The earlier they lived the better. Not sure which as I'm not an expert but I would suggest some of the early Arabic scholars. This is because their work founded much of modern mathematics which in turn improved technology. Further more killing a mathematician is better than an engineer or scientist as maths is more theory so it is less likely someone else will also figure it out at the same time. Just look at how long Fermats Last Therom took to be re-proven.

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    $\begingroup$ That is more than 2000 years ago. $\endgroup$ – James Jul 20 '16 at 21:32
  • $\begingroup$ Good point, didn't spot that restriction. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Jul 20 '16 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ One detail: Fermat was almost certainly wrong when he claimed he had that proof. There are apparently several things that look plausible at first but have holes. He certainly did not prove it in the same way as the modern proof, since that relied on a lot of mathematics that had not been invented in Fermat's time. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Jul 20 '16 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ @John Dallman I hadn't realised that. I think the point still works though. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Jul 20 '16 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Bellerephon: the point does indeed still work, I was just trying to correct a common misunderstanding. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Jul 20 '16 at 21:46
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Otto von Bismarck

The reason WW I spread so wide so fast was because of a concept called "Bündnispolitik" by Reichskanzler Bismarck. Without him Kaiser Wilhelm I would most likely not have such close ties to everyone (except France) when Austria-Hungary went to War against Serbia.

It also would have destabilized the upcoming Germany servilely as the Sozialversicherungen he initiated could not have brought through by someone with less good standing (and there were none at his time and place, compare him to his successor Leo von Caprivi).

This would in turn reduce the amount of warfare and industry in Europe thus delaying the science and technology progress by decades.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm torn between Bismarck and Charlemagne. $\endgroup$ – Karen Jul 21 '16 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Karen Yeah. Most likely a 6th century pope (or similar) would be even better, but I'm not well versed enough in that period. $\endgroup$ – Angelo Fuchs Jul 22 '16 at 7:01
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King Charles II of England ca. 1660

It's a bit of a challenge, but the goal here is to prevent the Royal Society from taking root in England.

As several other answers have noted, collaboration is key to science. So attempting to take out - or at least sabotage - a relatively early society dedicated to collaboration is a good target. And what better way to do that than to cut directly at the money?

In 1662/3, King Charles II signed a charter officially forming the Royal Society. With him out of the picture, would such a charter still be signed? Maybe. His successor's rule, King James II, was plagued by minor rebellions and unrest, during which time he would be unlikely to allocate funds to such a society, followed by The Glorious Revolution which ended his reign 3 years after it began. It's impossible to know what would happen in this alternate timeline, but if we assume a direct translation of events ~25 years into the future, that does not leave much time for science.

After James II, who knows? Willam III seems, altogether, to have been fairly open-minded, but would have been busy in the early years cementing his power (Although he had been invited to invade by certain nobles, there would probably have been other nobles opposing him). With sufficient passage of time, I hope that the masterminds who founded the Royal Society will retire or die off, and that the next generation would not be so driven.

Of course, bonus points if you can frame some group, e.g., the French, for the assassination of Charles II. That will cause even more instability, further inconveniencing the never-to-be-Royal Society

If we have successfully stopped, or at least delayed, the Royal Society, we would have blunted Newton, microbiology, and archaeology. All of these could happen without the Royal Society, but so could anything.

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    $\begingroup$ Oops. I've just noticed that SteveJessop made this same suggestion in an earlier comment. I didn't mean to steal his thunder, just that great minds think alike! (Which, ironically, is the key problem of this solution...) $\endgroup$ – Sompom Jul 21 '16 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ No thunder stolen, you're the one who could be bothered to write it up! $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 22 '16 at 0:05
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    $\begingroup$ Sophia of Hanover, Charles II's first cousin and the mother of George I, was quite the patron of science herself (she patronised Leibnitz). She died the year he was crowned, but if we're really lucky maybe he'd have taken an interest in the doings of the third generation of a 60-year-old club of natural philosophers meeting in Gresham College, in memory of his old mum ;-) $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 22 '16 at 0:14
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As-Saffah

enter image description here

As-Saffah (722?–754) was the founder of the Abbasid dynasty. This dynasty was largely responsible for the political consolidation and Persian influence that led to the Islamic Golden Age. Among other things, his son al-Mansur founded the city of Baghdad. Al-Mansur's grandson, Harun al-Rashid, established the House of Wisdom, a major center of learning in Baghdad; and in particular, heavily funded the Translation Movement, a concerted effort to translate the corpus of Ancient Greek learning into Arabic. Al-Rashid's son al-Mamun poured even more money and resources into the House of Wisdom.

Without the Abbasid Dynasty, none of this happens. The Translation Movement was at least partially built off of Persian traditions of scholarship; without the Abbasids, a different dynasty takes over the Islamic world (or their predecessors, the Umayyads, stay put for another century or two), and scholarship and learning take a back seat to other priorities. In this alternate timeline, relatively few Greek works are translated into Arabic; and since many of the Greek works that we know today survive only because of their Arabic translations, only a small fraction of ancient Greek learning and thought becomes available to European thinkers during the Renaissance era. Everything else has to be painstakingly rediscovered, and technological progress proceeds much more slowly.

Oh, and under the reign of As-Saffah, the Abbasids also won the Battle of Talas. As a result of this battle, legend has it that the secrets of paper-making were acquired from the Chinese as spoils of war, and subsequently disseminated into the Islamic world and thence into Europe. Under a different ruler, this might not have happened, and the Islamic world does not gain paper-making technology as early as it does. No doubt that paper-making would have eventually disseminated west from China at some point; but delaying this technology means that the transmission of knowledge is harder for that much longer, hobbling technological development that much more.

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  • $\begingroup$ Probably the most likely of the answers to delay the renaissance...my favorite answer $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Jul 21 '16 at 20:26
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René Descartes

René Descartes

Philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, Descartes is often called the father of modern western philosophy, and also the father on analytical geometry. His invention of the Cartesian coordinate system in the 17th century revolutionized mathematics by providing the first systematic link between Euclidean geometry and algebra.

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    $\begingroup$ There's even a Czech SF story where aliens intervene in the battle of White Mountain at the start of the Thirty-years war) in order to save Descartes. $\endgroup$ – Edheldil Jul 21 '16 at 11:25
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Hitler? Baby Hitler?

While this might be a bit horrible to say, the Nazis (and WWII in general) did a lot to propel science forward by allowing a lot of really inhumane things to happen that, in the end, were good for science. If we were limited to doing more humane things, we may not have made those discoveries for decades. The death of Hitler may also prevent the Cold War, which also lead to significant technological advancement.

One other possibility is something like killing Tesla - find any point in history where you had two similar competing inventions and kill the inventor of the more successful one, pushing human society towards a dead-end.

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    $\begingroup$ "Nazis did a lot to propel science forward": uh, no they didn't. Bad control groups, no publishing, no peer review, biased and racist doctors with a complete lack of integrity and a regime that wanted results "or else." $\endgroup$ – isanae Jul 21 '16 at 2:24
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    $\begingroup$ On the flip side, they encouraged Allies to research everything from medicine to atomic bombs, which would not have been as well funded without the the threat of WWII. Still, without Hitler are we sure there would have been no third reich? He didn't do that alone. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Ford Jul 21 '16 at 3:02
  • $\begingroup$ The Nazis didn't need Hitler, Hitler needed the Nazis. There were enough other good public speakers around. Offing Hitler would do surprisingly little. $\endgroup$ – Angelo Fuchs Jul 21 '16 at 9:10
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    $\begingroup$ If fiction has told me anything, it's told me about Hitler's time travel exemption act: not only is it nearly impossible to actually kill him, succeeding will invariably make WW2 worse. $\endgroup$ – Hurkyl Jul 21 '16 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl: considering how many answers are based on the reasonable premise that war=technology, I wonder who we could kill to have the reverse effect, and increase our level of technology by extending WW2 as long as possible (subject, of course, to us having enough time afterwards for peace-time applications to flourish). Prevent Pearl Harbor? Replace Hitler with someone whose policies lead to continual but indecisive wars? Better yet, extend WW1 so that it runs into WW2 and just keeps going... $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 21 '16 at 17:51
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Kaiser Wilhem II

As Tony Blair might say, "tough on technology, tough on the causes of technology".

Wilhelm II, the last Kaiser of Germany, the man who largely caused the First World War. Without WWI, you can prevent WWII, without WWII you could set back rocketry and nuclear physics for generations.

  • No fall of the empires
  • No Werner von Braun
    • No moon landings (or at least delayed)
  • No Einstein moving to America
    • No Manhattan project
    • No nukes
    • No nuclear power
  • No destruction of the Victorian era industrial facilities across Europe
    • No rise of Germany as a modern industrial power off a clean sheet
  • No massive surplus of military vehicles
    • No Harley Davidson choppers
    • No replacement of the old steam wagons

The consequences of not having these wars are endless and many of them technological. Of course the war may have been caused by Franz Ferdinand before some time traveler assassinated him in the hope of stopping it...

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    $\begingroup$ Calling Kaiser Wilhem "Bill" is about as appropriate as calling George Washington "Schorsch", or Queen Elizabeth "Lisa". $\endgroup$ – Angelo Fuchs Jul 21 '16 at 8:32
  • $\begingroup$ @AngeloFuchs, what it does is mark me out as English. Kaiser Bill is Kaiser Bill, Elizabeth I is Good Queen Bess and Elizabeth II is Liz II. If you Google those terms you get the person in question. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jul 21 '16 at 8:40
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    $\begingroup$ @AngeloFuchs: I always assumed that it's intentionally inappropriate. The question of whether one must show full and proper respect to "His Imperial and Royal Majesty Kaiser Wilhelm II" is an interesting one in theory, but the practical English custom in informal contexts is "no, we prefer to mock him". $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 21 '16 at 13:50
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You probably won't stunt technological growth just by killing some great scientists. Yes, they made a difference - but not that much of a difference. You need to destroy the whole place where "science happens".

If not for the time limit, kill one of Greek commander (for example Militiades) and let Persian conquer Greece, you could probably stop it most. No Greece legacy would make whole western civilization "poorer". Well, it's "only" 500 years before the time limit, so maybe you will consider it.

So... maybe Charles Martel. Let the Caliphate conquer Europe, or at least bring Franks to knees. By that, we probably "kill" France, Holy Roman Empire and even Papal State - and almost whole center of western civilization. Question is Caliphate could take that space, but it's unlikely.

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Nikola Tesla

"I don't care that they stole my idea... I care that they don't have any of their own."

With that kind of attitude, who knows the true extent of his contributions. Take any invention, any discovery, and claim the inventor or discoverer stole his idea. You think Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet? Think again! He came across one of Tesla's papers written 30 years prior. And even if that's too far-fetched, he's inspired many after him. Endless possibilities.

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A bit to the side - and my history-knowledge doesn't really allow me to come with a specific name... However, I would think killing a suitable science-friendly (or at least curious) and religiously liberal (eg. religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of thought) Pope (or a Cardinal who later became Pope) would do a lot of damage... especially if you picked one who's probable replacement would be a hardline religious conservative.

Another would be Martin Luther thus stopping Protestantism and keeping the Christian world unified under a conservative Catholic Church.

Killing Robes Pierre, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson; may have seriously damaged their revolution/rebellion, and repressed a lot of very "dangerous" ideas - thus keeping more power for the Church. A more indirect approach, would be killing someone critical to discover a dangerous traitor or incompetent - eg. whomever discovered Benedict Arnold - thus changing the outcome of the American revolution.

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Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov

Only Arkhipov, as Flotilla commander and second-in-command of the nuclear-armed submarine B-59, refused to authorize the captain's use of nuclear torpedoes against the United States Navy, a decision requiring the agreement of all three senior officers aboard.

If Arkhipov did not exist, I would think the USSR and USA would be in a full blown nuclear war. This was a peak of cold war, when humans had upwards of 100,000 Nuclear war heads. Though not enough to wipe out human race, but would have changed it forever, his brave act stopped the Cuban missile crisis into devolving further. This would have lead to world war 3, a war between India (Then ally of USSR) and Pakistan, spread of war in most southeast Asian countries, Afghanistan under Russia would try to invade other middle eastern countries. And in the aftermath would lead to wide spread famine, the inability to grow crops in most major powers, due to smog and blocking of the sun at the time. If any country would either be in a losing side or have suffered heavy loses wouldn't hesitate to target civilian populous.

Though technology wouldn't have been stunned we would still have guns, and armored vehicles, but all progress once made would have been lost either to destruction or in the aftermath, even simple technical know hows which was common knowledge would be lost as most nations would focus on war rather than agriculture, art, media or other no essential technology. World would be like a pale paranoid imitation of the present day Syria, Eritrea or Afghanistan.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if you're trying to be funny, with your answer creating a global nuclear war when I actually mention a nuclear war in my question... $\endgroup$ – Nex Terren Jul 21 '16 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ I did read it, but I believe "In short, it doesn't matter. The nature of science is such that it is a group effort.", so this was to me the only possibility, so just wrote it. $\endgroup$ – Chinu Jul 21 '16 at 1:35
  • $\begingroup$ and I still dont get why not nuclear war ?, also this scenario though leading to nuclear war, the technological stunting would more due to smaller scale war between non nuclear countries, once Russia and West, destroy each other. Paranoia and lack economic systems between countries. $\endgroup$ – Chinu Jul 21 '16 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Chinu because nuclear warfare between the USA and USSR would have meant total annihilation for the entire human race via radiation, nuclear fallout and nuclear winter. The question is about technological growth, not the apocalypse. $\endgroup$ – JS Lavertu Jul 21 '16 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ @AerisFang Nuclear warfare would not have killed everyone. The remnants of what were left, would practically be in the stone age though. Whether this one incident would have led to complete nuclear war is debatable, but considering the tensions of the time, I'd say highly likely. You want to believe the outcome of nuclear war is complete annihilation, but you have only to look at the Bikini atoll to see that is not the case. $\endgroup$ – boatcoder Jul 22 '16 at 13:34
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Some Random Person 2000 years ago

Due to the nature of the butterfly effect their does not need to be a single neat story explaining how the change happened. The real difference will be made with a long series of coincidences and knock on effects. A month after you make any change to the past, however tiny, the weather will be completely different. This has a knock on effect of who dies in famines and who was never born. History branches off with a multitude of forgotten details causing unforeseeable consequences.

The further back in time you go the more history could diverge. Their will be someone, some when that shooting will bring about almost any future, but a nanosecond difference in timing and the results could be completely different. By shooting the right person at the right time (or making any action that changes earth 2000 years ago) you can get anything from all humans going extinct to a world where the dark ages never happened and tech is 1000 years more advanced. Then again you have no way of knowing the effect of your actions without running an extremely realistic simulation.

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  • $\begingroup$ This might be good, but it isn't best. $\endgroup$ – MatthewRock Jul 21 '16 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthewRock: well, it's "best" in the sense that if you did have that completely implausibly good simulation, you can use it to choose the person who has the most effect, whoever it might be. I don't think Donald literally means choose one person at random with uniform probability (that would be about as likely to result in more technology rather than less, albeit everything might look different in all details). Of course the simulation is a bigger McGuffin than the time travelling ray gun, but the claim here is that the "actual" best person is probably unremarkable. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 21 '16 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ This is more of a comment undercutting the premise of the question than an answer per se, even if its too long for a comment. $\endgroup$ – Jared Smith Jul 21 '16 at 16:39
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Julius Caesar

Whithout him the expansion of the roman empire slow down massively, which in turn slow the flow of knowledge in all europe and north africa, and let's go for the snowball effect.

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    $\begingroup$ Alas, someone already got to him 2060 years ago, which means that to off him even earlier than that you'd have to break the 2000-year limitation. $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Jul 21 '16 at 11:13
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Take out Euclid before he wrote 'The Elements'. Without such an effective demonstration of, not just a compelling and useful mathematical subject, but also logical reasoning at its finest (for the time), the West would have lost all capacity for properly doing mathematics and for reasoning logically in very short order, and everything technological depends on those skills. (yes, there were other mathematical works around, but none had the scope and completeness of 'The Elements', and even with 'The Elements' in existence those other works were almost all quickly lost)

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    $\begingroup$ If it's logic you want to shut down, try Boole. Euclid is actually outside the limit at more than 2000 years $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jul 21 '16 at 13:21
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Columbus

I'd say that Columbus is unique in that he got extraordinarily lucky. During his lifetime, educated people knew both the the earth was round and that it was far too big to sail to Asia. Columbus had a extraordinary combination of out-of-the-box thinking, raw ignorance, and a significant capital investment from the crown. The capital investment is critical. Any scientist can takes notes through a telescope, but getting royal funding for a horrible idea doesn't happen often.

Without Columbus, history would be delayed at least a few centuries. The columbian exchange (especially new crops!) and European colonization created both the massive surplus and the source of raw material/demand for finished goods that was essential to the industrial revolution. Without Columbus, the industrial revolution gets pushed back a century or two.

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  • $\begingroup$ Columbus discovered what many already knew, he is romanticized in American schooling. Without Columbus, we'd be exactly where we are now, likely with a different name that we've romanticized instead. Perhaps go with the Monarch who authorized Columbus, but then it would simply be a different monarch authorizing it. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Jul 21 '16 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ If Columbus hadn't found the Caribbean islands when he did, history books would likely credit either John Cabot (Newfoundland, 1497) or Pedro Cabral (Brazil, 1500), with an outside chance of an otherwise-unknown Grand Banks fisherman getting credit. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jul 21 '16 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark: do we know whether or not Cabral sailed so far west in the South Atlantic in part because he knew Columbus had previously reported successful landfall? Not to say that he or someone else wouldn't have done the same eventually, surely sooner than a few centuries, but for a different example I think we can safely say that Vespucci benefited from the consequences of Columbus's fluke. Cabot first suggested his trip across the North Atlantic in 1494, a year after Columbus's second voyage, so that idea wasn't wholly independent of Columbus's success either. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 22 '16 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ @SteveJessop, Cabral's expedition was headed to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope, following the normal westerly route to catch the prevailing winds. It's unknown whether his decision to sail as far west as he did was influenced by Columbus or not, but it doesn't really matter: the volta do mar route came close enough to Brazil that someone would have found it sooner or later. As for Cabot, he may have been following Columbus, but the port he sailed from had previously sent out several westward expeditions looking for "Hy-Brazil", and could well have sent him even without Columbus. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jul 22 '16 at 1:01
  • $\begingroup$ Well, that's what I'm saying. Not as long as "a few centuries" but most likely not so early as 1497 either. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 22 '16 at 1:15

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