I always feel like "hypothetical history of science" questions are kind of impossible, but here's a go anyway:

Imagine that, for the entirety of human history, EM radiation from anything beyond the Kuiper belt was totally obscured. No star besides the sun had ever been observed, and in particular no large scale structures like galaxies have ever been directly observed. In such a world, it's possible that we'd still be clueless about dark matter, since the relative orbital periods of stars around our galactic center were the impetus for positing such a thing.

I'm interested in the kinds of physics we'd have available if we couldn't rely on long range astronomical observations. To narrow the focus a little more as one commenter suggests: In particular, how much of relativity would be available from local observations? Would near-earth time dilation effects be enough impetus to develop (if perhaps more slowly) the entirety of general relativity? If not, what are the likely missing pieces?

(The specific narrative motivation here is, if the situation above held, and our intrepid protagonists stumbled across a traversable wormhole, whether they would have even the faintest idea what they were looking at.)

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Malice. This is an interesting question but it is a very very large question that would probably take a series of books and great amount of speculation to answer. Can you narrow it down at all? $\endgroup$ – James Jul 29 '16 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ I worried that was the case. I will see what I can do to narrow things down in a bit. $\endgroup$ – Malice Vidrine Jul 29 '16 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ I agree.. This would benefit from something to reduce the scope. Perhaps it could be focused on Earth-scale physics properties that were easier to discover because we could make the observations on a galactic scale. This would exclude dark matter but include relativity. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 30 '16 at 2:09
  • $\begingroup$ I'm usually pretty quick to vote to close questions that are too broad, but I'm holding off... mostly because the question nerd sniped me for a few minutes. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 30 '16 at 2:10
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    $\begingroup$ @James You welcomed Malice to our site. I'm not sure whether to support you or disagree :D $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Aug 15 '16 at 22:17

There is a lot you can learn about physics with just the information available within this solar system. Lots of planets, moons, asteroids, pretty much everything you would need to explain basic Newtonian physics.

Assuming everything else leading up to human civilization is kept constant, we could reasonably conclude that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by an asteroid impact, and could therefore determine that there is stuff beyond this solar system. Comets could also be an indication.

Perhaps the only significant change might be a more widespread adoption of quantum theories, given that they were less-than-liked by Albert Einstein, whose General Relativity theory did a better job of explaining how big big big things like the movement of galaxies worked than how things work at the atomic and subatomic level, just as quantum physics is better at describing the tiny than it is at explaining the large. But that is still a titanic conjecture.

The overall effect wouldn't be too detrimental: people could still do plenty of research on Earth and by observing the solar system. People then as now will try to find ways to travel outside the solar system - in our case, to visit Alpha Centauri - as in theirs, just to see what might be out there. The knowledge of physics will, by necessity, expand, to meet these goals.

But, then again, we might not have stars to gaze at in the night sky, so we probably would have missed out on a Carl Sagan.

EDIT: Keeping with the theme of the modified question, I have a modified answer.

Johannes Kepler was a middling instructor when he noticed that the number of visible planetary bodies in the night sky matched the number of regular polygons. He therefore deduced that there was some kind of cosmic unity and spent quite a lot of time trying to prove it. He failed, but through that failure he came to the conclusion that the only realities that can be accepted by science are those with reproduce-able results, thereby ushering in what we commonly consider to be the scientific method.

I'm brushing over a lot of history here, but you get the point: even without the ability to see beyond the solar system, we would still have had plenty of impetus for the scientific revolution, and it is entirely possible that it would have led to extrastellar exploration to understand what is beyond the world we currently know.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree. Most of our science would be the same (you can get simple relativity from electromagnetism). I think the biggest difference would be the loss of "enthusiasm" for science generated by things like Star Trek or the Apollo program: if people in the 70s and 80s weren't intrigued by those, would we have had as many scientists (or "geek culture")? $\endgroup$ – Ghotir Jul 29 '16 at 18:22
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    $\begingroup$ Or we might have more imaginative fantasies regarding what exists beyond the solar system. Every human culture ascribed religious importance to the stars, which kind of lost a bit of the magic when we discovered that they were just hot balls of gas. $\endgroup$ – rm -rf slash Jul 29 '16 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ I've narrowed down the question a bit following a reasonable feeling that the original was too broad. I like your answer, but it's up to you as to whether you'd prefer to modify it. $\endgroup$ – Malice Vidrine Jul 30 '16 at 3:17
  • $\begingroup$ @MaliceVidrine, I made an edit, perhaps not fully matching your updated question, but I think the result is the same either way. Humans are explorers. We always will be. $\endgroup$ – rm -rf slash Aug 1 '16 at 16:23

One theory that would remain is Heliocentrism. With no (direct) evidence of other stars, the Sun would continue to be the center of the universe.

Navigation would be harder, specially in open sea, due to lack of stars for reference. The Age of Discovery (1500s to 1700s, in Portugal and Spain) would be delayed, possibly until reliable clocks were developed.

Myths and religions would be different without stars - I can't even guess how different. And myths affect the society structure, and creation of new ideas, thus driving science in different directions.


Most of what led to special relativity were local experiments. The Michelson-Morley experiment tried to figure out the speed of our planet relative to the 'ether', a supposed medium that carries EM waves. That experiment turned up nothing, showing that the speed of light is constant in all inertial reference frames. Einstein took the idea of constant light speed as his starting point, and that's how we got special relativity. It's also worth noting that the Maxwell equations don't make sense very well without special relativity, so anyone who can figure those out is bound to come up with it sooner or later. I think it's safe to say special relativity is expected in your scenario.

General relativity comes from taking the idea of making physics work the same in all inertial reference frames and adds acceleration and gravity. If your protagonists can figure out their orbit around their sun (which might be hard without background stars), and especially if there are other planets in the system they can observe, then they'll probably eventually figure out Newtonian gravity, which is the starting point you need for general relativity. Einstein built from there with thought experiments, and GR was verified in part by measuring the precession of Mercury. Again, having other planets in the solar system helps. It's possible that without background stars, GR might be less proven, and so perhaps your society might take those ideas less seriously. There's no reason to think they wouldn't be around, though.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually, Einstein claims that he wasn’t aware of the Michelson-Morley results when he started thinking about what it would be like to catch up to a ray of light, and Maxwell’s equations were is starting point. The laws of motion need to work the same way as Maxwell's (today we say Lorentz Invarient). $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 30 '16 at 7:20
  • $\begingroup$ This looks like a good summary of what Einstein worked with. “…but he denied any significant influence of the most important experiment: the Michelson–Morley experiment.[70]” $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 30 '16 at 7:30
  • $\begingroup$ True. I wrote that Einstein's starting point was the constant speed of light, not the MM experiment, though I see how you thought that was implied. Einstein's goal was to find how to make the Maxwell equations invariant, but most lay people will relate more easily to the MM experiment, which leads to the same jumping off point: the constancy of light speed to inertial reference frames. $\endgroup$ – morrna Jul 30 '16 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ I edited my wording to make that more clear. $\endgroup$ – morrna Jul 30 '16 at 14:27

Everything up to about the 1900s would be roughly the same in a number of fields.
Hubble's constant wouldn't be discovered
Relativity would only be discovered/evidenced if we tried to create a GPS.
Big Bang cosmology wouldn't be a thing
We couldn't find the CMB so anything from that would change
Astrology wouldn't exist and Nostradamus might be a famous doctor ^.^
Sailing would be harder thus the Americas might not be found when they were.
Plenty of religions would be changed.
Steven Hawking who? probably.
It's possible that WW2 would have ended radically different.
With Germany likely conquering all of Europe and allowing morally questionable experiments science in general could be much more advanced but also considered somewhat as terrible as the Inquisition, if not worse.
Quantum Mechanics would definitely be more accepted, but without the e=mc^2 evidence particle accelerators might not be a thing which might hold it way back.

  • $\begingroup$ Why would relativity not be discovered? What would make WWII end differently? $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Jul 29 '16 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ Relativity may be proposed, but it couldn't be evidenced till GPS systems because the way it was evidence can no longer occur without stars. This also would have made his e=mc^2 equation less prominent and resulted in them not developing Nuclear Bombs when they did which may have resulted in the US not getting involved in the western front and a prolonged war on the Eastern front if at all. $\endgroup$ – Durakken Jul 29 '16 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ The evidence that made relativity necessary was the Michelson-Morley experiment, which was entirely earthbound. The check done by observing gravitational lensing by the sun at a total solar eclipse was helpful, but there were other tests too. Einstein was not involved in developing the atomic bomb, apart from helping the people involved get a hearing, and their design did not depend on relativity in any way. Also, US strategy in WWII was not driven by the expectation of atomic bombs, nobody knew if they would work until late in the game. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Jul 29 '16 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ The experiment may have made it necessary, but the solar eclipse was the evidence to back the hypothesis. Getting that hearing and gaining game were crucially important. The US was only involved directly in WW2 late into it so I don't know how it wouldn't be in some way predicated on the assurance they the US was going to have such a weapon possibly. $\endgroup$ – Durakken Jul 29 '16 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ Read Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. US strategy was not based on atomic bombs. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Jul 29 '16 at 22:57

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