Imagine if Earth's atmosphere was shrouded in a perpetual layer of clouds or haze. Enough sunlight gets through to make agriculture still possible, but people are completely unable to see the stars. Thus, the science of astronomy can't develop until the invention of aircraft capable of rising above the clouds.

What technologies would never have been invented, or would have developed differently, as a consequence of the starless sky?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ navigation would be a huge problem. Do they know their planet orbit around a star? $\endgroup$ – Vincent Dec 28 '14 at 6:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The moon should still be visible and lunar calendars should still be possible. Blocking out the light of the full moon which is a -13 magnitude brightness, means an equivalent decrease of the sun's brightness which is going to mess up your weather systems. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnitude_%28astronomy%29 $\endgroup$ – tls Dec 29 '14 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ In Steven Brust's novels about Dragaera, The Dragaeran Empire is constantly shrouded by clouds, but in the novels it's usually just mentioned as an annoyance for people who aren't used to it, like visiting in Portland. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Dec 30 '14 at 16:50

As Vincent pointed out, Navigation will suffer a lot. Everyone would need to travel using land based visual cues (mostly). If they discover a compass, it will help some. But can they see there is a ball of fire that lights up the sky? or is it just a general lightening and darkening as the sun travels across the sky? How consistent is the cloud cover?

Without the ability to see that the things are moving around, the stars, the sun etc. then it would leave a rather insular point of view about the planet.

I also think for navigation of ocean's that very tall light houses would be common, with special markings so ships could travel farther out to sea and still be able to navigate and know their location. This would also encourage the creation of better optics as well as tower building technology. The ability to draw good maps to scale would be extremely valuable.

Calendars are going to be hampered a lot. if the only time you have is 'light' and 'dark', no moons, no year, no stars to notice differences? Or is there a moon that can penetrate the clouds near full? if so that could cause a lot of speculation about the the 'big' light and the 'small' light. It would also help set passages of time. Mythology would certainly be a lot different.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Getting a solid sun sighting is vital to calculating your position. The height of the sun at local noon gives latitude and the time of local noon gives longitude. It's still possible with a hazy sun through the clouds, but it will be far less accurate. This would not only hamper sea travel, but unable to get an accurate absolute position, it would impact the development of accurate maps. You'd have to rely on the less accurate and slower dead reckoning and surveying techniques. Ships would stay near the coast and explorers would not venture far. Exploration would be stuck in the 1400s. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Dec 30 '14 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ I think a point missing is how we became sedentary? The agriculture (base to any settlement) could only develop with a minimal understanding of astronomy, to create a calendar. If we still be nomads we probably will have no technological advance. $\endgroup$ – LawfulHacker Dec 30 '14 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ @SergioGarcia I would think that good calendars came after people became agricultural. The Calendars helped improve the marking of the seasons. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Dec 30 '14 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ With a bit if practice you can locate the sun even on a cloudy day. I think they would be aware that light starts East in the morning and ends West in the evening. But not good enough for accurate navigation. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 19 '16 at 12:23

Following up with bowlturner's last sentence: "Mythology would certainly be a lot different." This might actually complete reshape the entire history of mankind, even from biblical times. The change to mythos might very well cause faction rivalry to form completely different, forming a wildly different map of the world. And this is long before it affects technology.

  • $\begingroup$ I do not think the star shapes dictated what the archetypes (legends) narrate, but the other way around. We have a bunch of stories to count based in our day-to-day life (family relationships, society, nature) and reinterpret them on the stars. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Dec 28 '14 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 - That may be true for some, but perhaps not for others. For example: the north star. It stands watch, always watching over everybody (in this hemisphere at least). How many other things like that are there? Also: the constellations may have been named after mythos, but how much of the mythos came from the fact that there are stars to begin with? What tell you there's something else more than the lights in the sky? $\endgroup$ – iAdjunct Dec 28 '14 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ @SJuan76: I think this is a wonderful chicken and egg topic, which suggests we've found something fundamental to ourselves. I think the stars do have one strong effect on mythology: they are a very complicated structure which is the same for viewers across a "nation." The permanency of attaching stars to the stories might be hard to come by without the stars. In return, this would likely shape the stories into different stories that survive better without the permanent glow of the stars. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 28 '14 at 19:57

Here's something few others have pointed out: religion. The main basis for science arising and becoming as widely accepted as it is today is astronomy. The early astronomers (Galileo and his contemporaries) pointed out that the Sun is fixed and the Earth revolves around it; they were shunned at the time for heresy and blasphemy. If we didn't have their theories, it is entirely likely that religion would dominate our lives today.

Furthermore, it is fairly likely that Christianity would be the dominant religion by far. It is as dominant as it is today because of the empires of Europe, of Britain, France, and Germany, with some Spanish influence. Without astronomy, you don't have anyone rejecting religion out of hand, so the influences Christianity left would have remained, leading to it becoming far more dominant. Other religions would still be observed, but in smaller less pronounced pockets.

Timings would also suffer. Calendars and, importantly, leap years are based on our observations of astronomical phenomena. One month (word origin: "1 moon" > "1 moonth" > "1 month") was originally defined as one cycle of the Moon, 28 days. Over time this definition has been revised to keep up with our other definitions, such as seasons.

Leap years are based on the movement of the Earth around the Sun. As detailed in this article, the Earth actually takes 365.24 days to make one full revolution around the Sun, so adding a day (February 29th) every 4 years keeps us about in sync. If leap years hadn't been invented but some form of rudimentary calendar had, people would get very confused as, over the years, winter moved to summer and summer upped and left to take winter's place.

You are, however, right in assuming that we would eventually make these discoveries. As I see it, this could happen at one of two points:

  • By accident
    If the world advances enough to have electromagnetic radiation sensing beams of the kind we have today, they might point one at the impenetrable cloud and find that there's something beyond. That would, of course, spark a massive space race.
  • Manned flight
    As you say, once humans invent the aeroplane (probably a little later than we did), they can easily fly above the clouds and observe. Again, the first confirmed occurrence of this would spark the space race, to see who could master orbital mechanics and get a satellite up first.

However the discovery of space is made, there's a lot of discoveries to be made until this society is anywhere near our understanding of the universe. They'll end up several hundred years behind on astronomy, but could well do better than us in other fields, having had more time spent on them because of not spending said time on space exploration.


For questions like these I honestly like to use the tech trees from the civilization games. Its easy to point out that Navigation, as the obvious example, will be impacted. What is harder to discern is the downstream impacts, and that is where a chain like this (albeit a simplistic one) is very useful. Here is an image of the chain.

My answer presupposes one thing: The cloud cover is completely and utterly constant. There are no breaks in the clouds, or at least they are so rare that they are essentially legends that are passed from generation to generation that most never see. I suppose this could also allow for Peter's comment about mountain top monasteries. The short version, the clouds never part or it is exceedingly rare.

As a disclaimer...I am not going into every possible technology...just attempting to demonstrate how things can be looked at differently. I will focus this primarily on early technologies because you can then chase the rabbit down this hole yourself.

  • Agriculture: While agriculture can still exist per your description it would be negatively impacted in this world. This has huge downstream impact. Agriculture is the basis of all human civilization. It allows for larger cities in which specialization can come to be. This has lasting and on-going impact on the rate at which civilization develops. For example it would be reasonable to assume that humans remain hunter-gatherers for much longer. You can likely use this phenomenon to restrict development to your hearts content...we could remain cavemen. At the very least things get started more slowly.

  • Navigation: The skies have been used for navigation for as long as humans have traveled. I am not speaking only of ocean navigation but overland as well. While you can certainly still tell where the sun rises and sets things are far less precise and night travel is completely blind.

  • Religion: This I am including as more of a social development but I feel it is relevant. With no view of heavenly bodies it is reasonable to believe that they do not become deities. There are a few routes you can go here. Concepts like animism and nature spirits could play a larger role. The impact of this is that some early advancements particularly in stonework, mathematics and construction were a result of monument building. That is not to say that religions would still not create large structures but nature related religions are not generally historically known for creating monuments like this. Again, with a change as fundamental as permanent cloud cover you can kinda go wherever you want with this. I am just trying to illustrate the possibilities.

  • Calendar: Calendar development on earth developed exclusively based on heavenly bodies. A calendar is still useful and would likely be developed, but what would it be based on? Seasons. Sure that can work, but it lacks the precision of using the skies. It also requires other technologies for example temperature readings before it can be anywhere near accurate.

Notes: This is a pretty fundamental change to how the world works. Removing or minimizing the relevance of heavenly bodies in the day to day life of early humanity could cause things to develop radically differently. In the end I don't think you will see technologies that fail to come to be. The timing of them showing up will surely change as will, by necessity, the order in which they are created.

Very interesting concept and one that allows you to tweak the world to your heart's content. Just try to maintain a logical consistency, and if you are unsure whether two developments fit into the world you are creating those would be great questions for the site.

  • $\begingroup$ You cannot have perpetual water cloud everywhere on a planet. Water vapour is a greenhouse gas. Cloud cover us a temperature regulation mechanism. When cloud cover reaches 100% it is game over for life, and run-away global warming boils the oceans and creates a "cool Venus". Perpetual haze, perhaps caused by extensive vulcanism, is OK. So is perpetual cloud cover of a limited region. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 19 '16 at 12:16

Astronomy could develop anyways, depending how high and how dense clouds are - possibly monks living in monasteries high in the mountains above most of the atmosphere would be able to see the stars - it would be even more spiritual experience for them.

  • $\begingroup$ Every religion I know was created based on astronomy, if we can't observe the sky those monks will probably not exist. $\endgroup$ – LawfulHacker Dec 30 '14 at 17:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Your claim is that without being able to see stars, religion would not evolve? Hard to prove. Religion is about seeing false patterns (punishment from gods). Not related to stars at all. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Dec 30 '14 at 17:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I do not claim that religion will not evolve, but certainly it will not evolve the same way as we know. Some cults are made in the top of mountains because there people became near the gods. The fable of the babel tower is because people tried to climb to heaven. If we can't see the stars or the Sun, ours gods will probably be different and also our beliefs. $\endgroup$ – LawfulHacker Dec 30 '14 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ OK now you changed your gameplan. Now we both agree that monk would exist and religion might be different, do we? No Ra the Sun God, but we still have Mars - God of war and Ganesha - Remover of the Obstacles, etc. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Dec 30 '14 at 18:20

We will probably still being nomads hunting animals and collecting foods.

Maybe I'm putting to much value or astronomy for saying this but in my opinion almost every single achievement of the humankind couldn't be done without the help of astronomy.

The control of the seasons and the creation of calendars with allowed the first humans to became sedentary were thanks to astronomy.

The observation of the positions of the stars in the sky, during what will became the year, was the first sign of season or a calendar that the humankind had. It allowed the first human to establish a settlement and cultivate plants.

If we couldn't became sedentary, we'll be expending to much energy on surviving and probably we will not get much more advances than small tools made of iron or stone and the wheel.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.