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Imagine world as you see. Electric lights. Fridge full of food humming silently, running water. You are reading an e-book in warm, but electric light. You hear a noise. Car crash. At the same moment your ebook goes dead, but you hardly notice it in darkness. Fridge goes silent. It's the end of the world as you know it.

This sounds pretty cool to me. For sure, I will need to handwave the reason and mechanics of this change. But what would need to change to make electric and electronic devices go dead? To stop most of internal combustion engines from working? At the same time, I want my stars to shine, plants to grow, blacksmiths to be able to do their job.

Is there any constant, any law of nature that, if changed, would give me this effect and still gave me coherent and working universe?

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like a system patch introduced a bug in the universe simulation. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Nov 10 '16 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like someone renamed the Electricity class. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Nov 10 '16 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ There is no scientific reason for these sort of effects to take place, so the hard science tag is not going to work here. The only possible reason is "magic". $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Nov 10 '16 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ See S.M. Stirling's "Emberverse" series. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Nov 10 '16 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds quite a lot like the recent American TV show "Revolution" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolution_(TV_series)). $\endgroup$ – Charles Burge Nov 14 '16 at 20:50
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Break the humans and their toys, not the laws of nature

Do not even bother with trying to change the laws of nature because — as the religious like to point out — they are so intricately woven into each other that any such change pretty much wrecks the universe as a whole.

Instead: break the humans, that is a lot easier. And there is a very simple way to achieve that which you are after:

Make humans unable to read

A virus of some sort knocks out the part of our brain that makes us able to comprehend written language. That part is quite localized and we can lose this without otherwise becoming mentally disabled. This makes us unable to communicate in written form and makes us unable to take in stored information. Bye bye Wikipedia, all school books, anything and everything expressed with letters are suddenly unavailable to us.

But we can still talk over long distance. That will need to be remedied...

Wreck the computers

At the same time as they release this bio-engineered virus, the Rousseauists (*) — as the terrorists / freedom fighters call themselves — detonate a number of stolen nuclear weapons in orbit above significant population centers. The resulting High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulses destroys much of the electronics in the world. Every processor, diode and transistor in sight of the explosions will be fried.

Without being able to communicate in written form, humans will be unable to make any machines or electronics to replace the ones that were destroyed. Knowledge transfer will be oral only. The few remaining working machines will be very valuable (plot hook right there).

Of course there will be quite a few ecological disasters here and there... as oil tankers run around, chemical processing plants break down and/or go up in flames, the odd nuclear power plant meltdown, the inability to combat forest fires, huge dams collapse (if you cannot control the water flow, eventually the dams will collapse) and so on.

Plus the fact that all forms of non-fossil energy generation stops working instantly, because the power grid has just been destroyed; power switching requires electronics. Which in turn means that global warming becomes definitively unstoppable.

On the plus side, there will not be as many humans left to cause global warming either because as the food distribution chains break down, the availability of fresh water and sanitation becomes abysmal, and health-care ceases to function we can expect mass epidemics and starvation to the point where mankind becomes next to extinct.

So there you have it... you have made humans go back to nature. Happy about the result? :)

(*) Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the source of the catch-phrase / philosophy "Back to nature".

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd like to point out that a large solar flare from the sun can also create an EMP able to damage all electronics (in the half the world facing it). And with computers being built into EVERYTHING now, While fossil fuels will still generate 'power', the device you want to power with it is probably already fried. $\endgroup$ – Tezra Nov 11 '16 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ @tetra. Different sort of EMP. Sun could destroy AC coupled long distance electricity transmission, or more specifically the transformers it uses. Also satellites. No effect on terrestrial electronics apart from collateral damage if local mains supply voltages go crazy as the transformers explode. As we move to HVDC transmission the threat is diminishing. If you want to write the solar EMP story it's more plausible as alt history 1950 to 2000. We also now get advanced warning to shut down the grid from solar observatory satellites. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 14 '16 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ Superb answer by the way. I'd like to read this one if you write it. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 14 '16 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Tezra What nigel just wrote. A high altitude detonation of a nuclear weapons creates an intense pulse; a "spike" which induces a very short-lived high voltage that ruins electronics. Whereas a geomagnetic storm is a very different phenomena that creates enduring voltages over — in particular — long un-shielded power lines. While both are very detrimental, they are so in quite different ways. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 14 '16 at 15:41
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Consider that the mechanism by which we obtain electrical power is essentially the flow of electrons. Sure, you're thinking of flipping a switch and having lights, AC, and your computer all turn on, but that's simply a matter of quantity.

If you were to stop electrons from moving around you would fundamentally break out universe.

Now to address combustion engines - all they do is harness the energy of burning fuel. We use oil because it has the best energy to mass ratio, which makes it most practical. How are you going to stop burning fuel from creating exothermic reactions, yet still run a forge?

Also consider that exothermic reactions, on a very tiny level, also occur in all of our cells as we consume nutrients - it's why out bodies are warm.

And so, you can't possibly "turn off" electricity or combustion without fundamentally breaking out universe.

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  • $\begingroup$ Gasoline engines require spark to ignite combustion, so this would technically stop them from working, diesel engines could still function $\endgroup$ – JB06 Nov 10 '16 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ @JB06 - a spark is essentially just static electricity. The engine still fundamentally runs on burning fuel, as does a diesel engine, or a steam locomotive (uses steam instead of combustion gases). You still need an exothermic reaction to keep them going. And burning wood in a forge, or coal in a steam locomotive, or fuel in a combustion engine are all the same operating on the same underlying principle. It's the amount of energy released which differs. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Nov 10 '16 at 14:27
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Reduce the distance electricity can travel through metal wires - Make it so that electricity dissipates after 2 meters or so (by arcing or as heat - which has a parallel in the real world in that wires melt if too high current flows through them, we're just readjusting the threshold).

This will disable electrical/power grids everywhere. Batteries would work only if whatever they power is within 2 meters and that too until they die. Heavy machinery is out for the most part. Electronics would keep working if run by batteries but most will eventually die out because of lack of power source.

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This is ... not practical without a virtualised universe, whose laws are subject to overrides, or the kind of omnipresent creator deity who is directly responsible for everything happening deciding to stop some things. Those amount to much the same thing, in terms of the behaviour of the universe.

The same laws of electromagnetism are responsible for light, electricity, the solidness of matter, and a great deal else. Notably, the signals passed along your nerves work in a similar way to electricity flowing along a cable. It's impractical to have one without the other.

The only way to get this to happen is to have the laws of nature depend on the human-centric context and meaning of events. They very noticeably don't do that at present, and having them do so would be a pretty good definition of "magic".

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If common conductive metals (especially copper) were brittle rather than ductile, it would be impossible to draw them into long wires without breaking them; existing wires would be fragile and prone to breaking. No magnetic coils means no transformers, induction coils, generators, or electric motors. Long transmission lines would break under their own weight or in the wind.

It doesn't eliminate electricity as a form of energy transfer, but it would make large-scale generation and transmission of electricity very difficult. If transmission lines started to break, the entire grid would be down in short order.

It wouldn't have every effect you noted - existing battery-powered devices would keep working for a time and cars could work for a while (until the inability to create/distribute fuel caught up to them) - but it would absolutely cripple power distribution and make it impossible to create new wires, transformers, generators, etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ I love the idea, but I do feel like it would affect a lot more than just the conductive metals. If by nature Ductile became Brittle in any way, then everything else that was Ductile for the same reason as Copper would become brittle, which simply put probably means that most metals, including non conductive ones, are going to do so as well, Since this is a Fundamental rule of nature we are changing. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Nov 14 '16 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ Agreed. It's hard to think of a reason, even a hand-waving one, why this same affliction wouldn't affect far more than just conductive wires. Now, if Cu suffered some sort of destructive phase change (similar to "tin pest": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tin_pest), perhaps along with Ag and Au, other structural metals (iron/steel, for example) could be unaffected. This would still have a devastating impact on current technology but could be worked around with other materials. $\endgroup$ – Joe Nov 15 '16 at 7:58
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If cutting a magnetic field at ninety degrees no longer released energy the last 115 years would simply cease to be relevant until we figured out an alternate method of generation.

It's a core law of nature that we have established modern civilization on. It's conceivable it could be hindered or altered regionally since the option to do it locally by generating interference already exists. See Electromagnetic pulses. They don't stop generation but hinder it.

Its a man made alteration to an existing law of nature. Not the creation of a new one. Since the technology already exists and has been tested in many forms it has happened. Its not a question of quantity but a question of duration.

I think its a great idea and the premise is much closer to reality than most people care to imagine. Everything we have today is the result of electricity that not many people can actually make.

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There's a Czech sci-fi writer called Ondrej Neff (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ond%C5%99ej_Neff), in whose book Tma (The Darkness), the electricity suddenly stops working. Then a more or less standard postapocalyptic story happens with people struggling for survival as the society slowly breaks down (diesel engines and steam trains work for a while).

There are two versions of the book and each have a different explanation (which we don't find until the very end). It's been something like 10 years since I've read it, so maybe I messed something up, but roughly I remember:

  1. The Earth's magnetic field is swapping (as it does periodically every couple thousand years) its north and south poles and until this swap is finished, the electricity just doesn't work (I don't remember the details, maybe it was something different).

  2. There's an intergalactic community of different alien species, and the Earthlings had been considered advanced enough to join. To connect the Earth to the transport grid, it's electricity needed to be temporarily disconnected.

One thing that might be worth considering is that similarly to 1. (which I'm not that sure it would actually work the way you and/or Neff wanted), the explanation doesn't need to be scientifically bulletproof, just sounding reasonable to an intelligent reader...

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My solution to this is that the fundamental laws regarding electricity and combustion change, but that living beings are unaffected. Fire beyond a certain intensity becomes unpredictable, or is reduced in it's intensity. Electricity no longer works reliably except in the brain chemistry of living organisms. Only a thin band of combustion and electricity types are effected, meaning that fuel won't burn right, computers won't work, but lightning still happens, and the sun won't fizzle out. As for the why of this all, anything could work. Aliens. Magic. God. The large hadron collider breaks reality. Because I said so. Random change in universal constants. Anything really.

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You could introduce a microorganism with a tremendous appetite for energy but a relatively inefficient means of acquiring it, adapted to absorb electrical and heat energy. Such an organism might be unable to absorb small quantities, like the amounts of electricity and heat present in the human body; but perhaps it could absorb highly-concentrated energy, and thereby obstruct electrical currents or the blasts of heat produced by a combustion engine. Plausibly, big natural phenomena - like volcanoes and stars - would be immune, since the organisms wouldn't be able to survive in such extreme environments.

To produce the abrupt effect you're looking for, we'd need a sort of synchronization between the organisms. So say these microorganisms evolved from some sort of disease, which "learned" that it's best to attack all at once - otherwise those pesky humans will quarantine the infected and make an antibiotic that can wipe you out before you're done. The disease developed something like a neural network between its various individuals, allowing crude signals to travel; for example, an activation signal. As a precursor to the final version of the creatures, you might see examples of entire towns coming down with an unusual illness all on the same day. But then the disease finds that "infecting" devices is more lucrative; maybe then we see a few cases of isolated towns losing power, put down to bizarre failures in the electrical grid. Finally, the disease mutates to have a global neural net; the activation signal is fired off and produces a wave of failures worldwide.

Downsides: Either these organisms would be bizarrely fine-tuned (in which case they'd probably have to have been bioengineered) or they'd interfere with processes like steam engines, boiling water, or even fire. You also might be able to circumvent them, by producing a sufficiently sealed environment to prevent them from getting in.

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