I have this world in my cosmic garden where open flames are not possible in the primary atmosphere (either not enough oxygen or some other factor that limits free burning of fuel).

Given that advanced technology (as we know it) is only possible through the application of heat, would is be possible for this world to rise to the same level of technology (accessible to all) as we have?

Another assumption we have is that it's possible for this civilisation to discover a method which allows for combustion.

We also assume that the civilisation isn't yet prey to political competitiveness (the beings are benevolent and strive for the greater good of the species).

Clarification: We want these beings to be able enter the electronic computer age, and/or develop technology to leave the planet.

So, would this be possible without an atmosphere that allows open flames?

Further clarification: Post edited to be fully clear (sorry, this was my first question and I confused rather than informed people)

I woke up this morning to see that this question has been marked as a possible duplicate. This isn't strictly the case as I explicitly don't rule out fire here, just that it isn't possible in the open atmosphere.

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    $\begingroup$ You know all the advancements made from the age of fire? Remove that and you should have your answer. I'm sure stuff like the wheel can still be invented though. $\endgroup$
    – Skye
    Sep 12, 2016 at 8:37
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    $\begingroup$ How do people function (where do they get heat/other form of energy to get things to move about)? $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2016 at 8:50
  • $\begingroup$ I am implying here that 'advanced technology' entails the creation and manipulation of metals/glass/plastic. Let's say that the defining technology level is "entering the electronic computing age". $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Sep 12, 2016 at 8:55
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    $\begingroup$ I have this world in my cosmic garden where exothermic reaction is not possible in the primary atmosphere. This sentence needs a serious explanation. Do we have a localized heat death? If not, is the atmosphere a mixture of some noble gases (or why would there be no exothermic reactions possible)? (Note that noble gases alone doesn't fulfill the criteria, since at least the reaction for XeF2 is exothermic). If you simply meant "no oxidization possible, since no oxide in the atmosphere", this changes the question fundamentally. No exothermic reactions at all = heat death $\endgroup$
    – hoffmale
    Sep 12, 2016 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of No fire, but what instead? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Sep 12, 2016 at 16:59

7 Answers 7


Based off of your comment to your question, you may want to edit your question and remove the part about exothermic reactions and replace it with the no-open flames part. So with that being said what you want isn't entirely impossible. You just need a world where the amount of oxygen is below the point where fire can occur. Our atmosphere is about 21% oxygen. If it dropped down to about 15% then open fires would not be possible, but biological life as we know it could still be possible.

So the next part of the question is how does society advance without fire? Well we mainly used fire for the heat it produced. In the beginning this will be tricky to overcome, but is still possible. You could use geothermal features as sources of heat. The suns rays can be focused to make a solar furnace using some highly polished surfaces. If you really meant no open flames, there are lots of exothermic chemical reactions that could be used as sources of heat. Once your society advances far enough along to where they can harness electricity, then they can use induction for heating things. They could even use that electricity to separate water into Oxygen and Hydrogen, and use that collected Oxygen to cause small containers where they can burn things.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks Zillakon for answering my first (and somewhat stumbling) question here on WB. You got my intention and eloquently managed to wrangle some sense from it and provided a succinct answer. $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Sep 12, 2016 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Pete remember that we used fire to survive in our early days. Controlling fire was what made our civilization beat other animals $\endgroup$
    – Yacomini
    Sep 12, 2016 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete, we all had a start somewhere. Just as a heads up, you still should probably edit your original question (be sure to note that it was edited). It will help you attract some alternate answers that may be better. Also, you should generally let 24 hours go by before accepting an answer. This again is to help you get more answers to your question. Welcome to the site. $\endgroup$
    – Zillakon
    Sep 12, 2016 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ If you can make glass using a geothermal heat source, you could could get solar ovens rather early. The main problem with low oxygen atmosphere for technological development would be the removal of steam power as a significant leap over animal labor. Geothermal can provide steam power, but it's decidedly non-portable. No steamships. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2016 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ The 15% threshold only applies to "common materials". That just means you have to try harder, not that you cannot burn things. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Sep 12, 2016 at 18:51

Bigger problems than you think

No oxidising atmosphere? You have just killed off the entire kingdom of Animalia, or rather made sure it will not evolve. The Citric Acid Cycle can not exist without Oxygen or oxidation. Organisms cannot create ATP and as such not do not have any energy available to do any kind of actual work.

So essentially you are asking if bacteria and plants can create an advanced technological civilization. Answer: not very likely.

If you then invoke magic and say "Well, advanced forms of life have evolved anyway, through some to us unknown physics / biology", then the same applies to technology. People are inventive, they will most likely find away around this issue. How have they done this? Only you as the author know. Since magic is involved, anything is possible. You — as the author — are free to do whatever you want here.

To point out what you did with this post: you essentially said "I have a setting where anything is possible because I have chosen to ignore the the usual constraints of physics and biology as we know them, in order to create a physical constraint".

Well you cannot have it both ways and then expect us to deduce a simple answer for you. Either you further expand on these constraints to create more well-defined physics and biology, or you accept that you as the author may choose freely how this works.

  • $\begingroup$ Let's just assume that the life forms on this planet doesn't rely on an oxidising atmosphere to survive. Maybe "oxidising" is technically the wrong word. The key part of this question surrounds a native atmosphere that can't burn stuff. $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Sep 12, 2016 at 9:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete No, let us not assume that, because the implications of this up-ends everything. The Great Oxygenation Event happened when Life on this planet was still only multi-cellular bacteria at the most. Life had only just gotten the hang of photo-synthesis. And like Mołot just said: if you try to ban exothermic reactions from the setting, then higher forms of life go with it. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Sep 12, 2016 at 9:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete I am sorry but it does not work that way. Questions of the sort "I want everything else to remain exactly as it is now, but I want to change only this one thing" will always get this sort of answer. You have essentially invoked magic because you have invented an entire new form of biology. And since we are in the realm of magic no-one knows what will happen. I will simply say that if Life has managed to come around without an oxidizing atmosphere, then you as the author can choose whether they achieve technology or not, because: magic. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Sep 12, 2016 at 9:52
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    $\begingroup$ I think his problems are bigger than that. No exothermic reactions means that most biological chemical reactions are also off the table meaning dead organisms. $\endgroup$
    – Murphy
    Sep 12, 2016 at 10:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Murphy - Zombie world it is. Pete wrote: "the beings are benevolent and strive for the greater good of the species" = build spaceships to get worlds where they can find braaaains! Or maybe Pete will limit the forbidden exothermic reactions to the the open atmosphere, and internally, plant/animal cells have some way of getting it going. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2016 at 12:50

No, technology requires big brains, and big brains require cooking.

Some research suggests that cooking made it possible for big brains to evolve, by making food more nutritious.

...metabolic limitations that result from the number of hours available for feeding and the low caloric yield of raw foods impose a tradeoff between body size and number of brain neurons, which explains the small brain size of great apes compared with their large body size. This limitation was probably overcome in Homo erectus with the shift to a cooked diet. Absent the requirement to spend most available hours of the day feeding, the combination of newly freed time and a large number of brain neurons affordable on a cooked diet may thus have been a major positive driving force to the rapid increased in brain size in human evolution.

One way to look at it is that digestion requires energy. Cooking basically lets you do some of the digestion outside of your body, using energy stored in trees and other things that you can't eat. If you can't access that energy by burning it, you are seriously restricted in the amount of energy you have for building, operating, and maintaining a big brain.

Since you're in a "cosmic garden" you might be able to get around this by having a fruit readily available for your people to consume that is incredibly nutritious, but only their species can access for some reason.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, this is a good point. I've read about the affect of fire on homo genus (human's) evolution before but had forgotten it here. I suspect this has been covered in other questions so we can assume an alternative food source here. $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Sep 13, 2016 at 6:01
  • $\begingroup$ This answer made me hungry. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2016 at 19:43

Water currents (e.g rivers, waterfalls) and winds can rotate your gears and turbines. Springy materials can be wound and unwound (e.g bow strings, springs etc.). Various chemical based batteries will empower your cars and planes, and eventually spaceships (so your astronauts can discover a planet where the natives use this weird and unnecessary 'combustion' thing).

How do people function (where do they get heat/other form of energy to get things to move about)? Do you have radioactive materials on your planet?

  • $\begingroup$ What would these cars/planes/space-ships be made of? Concrete, wood...? What spaceworthy materials can be made without the use of exothermic reactions? Don't overlook the fact that it's only the atmosphere that doesn't allow fire - an enclosed container would be able to generate the heat necessary, which leads to the practical considers I'd like to see explored. $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Sep 12, 2016 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, assume the same geology as earth, but consider what's needed to make use of it. $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Sep 12, 2016 at 9:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Pete concrete is created in exothermic reaction. Using or acquiring energy often ends up with exothermic reactions. Are you sure you want to force this setup? This doesn't look like it brings you muc good, but you will encounter many problems. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2016 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ @MatthewRock Ok, so me saying "exothermic reaction" is a terrible way for me to specify that open flames are not possible in this atmosphere. Heat/warmth/metabolism are not outlawed, it's just open flames and combustion. $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Sep 12, 2016 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ Spaceships have their own oxidizer anyway. Why? Hint: There is no oxygen in space. People certainly won't go to space with chemical batteries. $\endgroup$
    – Nobody
    Sep 12, 2016 at 10:50

You don't need open flames to generate heat (though that's the easy and obvious way). You could use volcanos (though that may be high risk for your gear!) You could use radioactives (not too healthy to be near) You could use electrical resistance heating (though you probably need metals to build the gear - and a generator for the electricity, which also wants metal - so you some way of getting your metals originally to bootstrap this. You could even use mechanical friction, driven by wind or water.

Or just use your oxidising gas in sealed environments.


It'll be hard to get metal from ore without smelting (that is, fire). Even for metals that can be found in nature (e.g. gold), you still need fire to work forges. Without metal, you don't have alloys, which are key to advanced technology.


It's not just finding an alternate heat source like geothermal, volcanic, etc. You need lots of controlled heat in a confined space such that you can work safely around it in order to fire pottery, work metal and make glass. Without these basics, you can't do anything more advanced. Forget electricity, steam power, or any form of chemistry. No fire means no technological progress.


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