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Wanted: Brainstorming Partner for Permanent Global Blackout

  1. Feb 22, 2016 #1

    I hope this kind of plea is allowed here, if not, please just let me know. I'm new here :-)

    I have this story idea that seems to be taking up permanent residence in my head and it will be set around 200 years in the future...and here comes the catch: I need that future to be without electricity. I'm not a physicist and my research so far only led me to doomsday-preppers who believe a global blackout might happen at some point but most certainly wouldn't be permanent. Well, I need it to be permanent.

    I'm not set on a specific scenario or any kind of scenario really, because that is not going to be the point of the story. I'm open to all suggestions as long as they are credible and easily understood by a wide audience. I know, I'm asking for a lot. Also the blackout has already happened at least 150 years ago from when my story is set, so I don't really need to go into the details of several stages and technicalities (if there are any), because what happened will be told by one of the characters who is not going to be a scientist.
    What I need is a believable explanation that won't tempt people to throw books across the room with an audible "What the ****?!"
    And no, I did not like the "Nanites"-explanation for the blackout on the TV show Revolution, I would prefer something not man-made, because then it would be reversible.

    I would also like to do some brainstorming what parts of every day life would be affected in the long run.

    Looking forward to your replies! :-)
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 22, 2016 #2
    hello! As I understand it (and my knowledge is limited), electricity is just one of those properties that cannot be "Stopped"..ie, its flow of electrons, electrons make up matter, determine chemical reactions..so for me, something like a massive EMP type event (perhaps some space cataclysm brings this about, meteor etc) that disables all electronics and continues to do so would make more sense..I don't know how to phrase it better. It is much more likely that consumer electronics, and power grids fail, but one would always be able to generate electricity. We could see some type of global destruction of technology and scientific knowledge coupled with this cataclysm as leading us backwards to a darker age..IMO

    The premise of revolution (one of the worst shows IMO) was pretty ridiculous, but then again, this whole idea of electricity as a property ceasing to exist is very difficult to pull off! but I just felt like I had to give my 0.002. good luck.

    RE: parts of everyday life, well since all machines, factories, everything runs on electronics thered be the dark ages I guess
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2016
  4. Feb 22, 2016 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    Considering that part of your nervous system is electrical, this seems like a bad idea, story-wise.
  5. Feb 22, 2016 #4
    It's sort of electrical, but more chemical, I think. Nerves aren't at all like a metal wire.

    If you were really going to shut down all electricity then atoms couldn't exist. The Earth would melt into black hole or explode or something.
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2016
  6. Feb 23, 2016 #5
    I knew it wouldn't be easy, everyone can do easy :smile:

    I'm not really thinking about disabling all electricity, I want there to be thunderstorms for example and I of course want life on earth to be able to go on, otherwise there would be no point in writing about it.

    I guess what I need is a scenario where people can no longer use electricity...I want life to be as it was back in the 18/19th century (plus the added knowledge of industrialisation, but no means to use it any longer), and I realize that it would be a whole lot easier to just set my story in the past. But for the sake of the dramatical arch, that is not really feasible.
  7. Feb 23, 2016 #6
    Not so if its a short story. Ah, no pun intended. :wink:
  8. Feb 23, 2016 #7
    Oh, yes. How do you think your heart beats?
  9. Feb 23, 2016 #8
    Honestly, I can't see a realistic way to do that, but I am reading a book by Alastair Reynolds called Terminal World where Earth far in the future has been reduced to primitive technology because of something called zones and zone shifts that seem to disturb the fabric of space just enough to render machinery non-functional.

    Some zones are more forgiving than other and there are areas where electricity works, but others where only mechanical systems work, and still others where not even biology function.

    I'm not far enough into the book where the explanation is brought forward, but I suspect there will not be a very grounded one. The reader just needs to accept it.

    Now, along Reynold's lines I do have an idea and perhaps someone could elaborate on.

    What if the Earth and its region of space fell victim to a false vacuum? However, I would propose that the shift in the energy state from where we are to a lower vacuum energy state be subtle enough that it doesn't wipe out biology, but does change the rules of physics enough to make the use of electricity or electronics difficult or impossible due to some technical Catch-22?

    Just a thought.
  10. Feb 23, 2016 #9
    I have no idea how that would work *lol* I'm a biologist, but physics have never been my strong suit. A vacuum is the absence of all matter, I'm guessing a false vacuum is not...

    I guess what it comes down to is - what environmental parameters make the usage of electricity possible? Is it air-pressure or humidity (I know that can have an influence) or magnetism (would a polar shift be a game changer?) or anything else I'm not thinking off of the top of my head. And can I feasibly change one of these parameters to make it impossible to use electricity with our present day technical knowledge?
    I know, people might eventually come up with a new solution or new technology to circumvent every stone I might throw in their way, but that's a problem I can write around with storytelling.
  11. Feb 23, 2016 #10
    It has to do with electrical potentials across cell walls and sodium and potassium ions pumps in those membranes.
  12. Feb 23, 2016 #11


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    It is fairly implausible that any natural phenomenon would disrupt only certain types of electricity. As others have said, you cant just put a blanket that stops all electricity because that would have disastrous effects not only on life but the world around us. In order to make this work you will need some pretty strong handhavium, The best solution I can come up with is Aliens. Say a probe or ship crashed 150 years ago and some mechanism on the ship is emitting a dampening field that is shorting out man made electricity. In order to make it non reversible, have the ship crash in the ocean. without access to any form of advanced technology, it would be fairly impossible to reach the ship.
  13. Feb 23, 2016 #12
    I'd rather not venture into Alien territory...would it be plausible that a similar effect might be created by a meteor?
    Then again...how would people even know what happened if that thing fell into the ocean where nobody could see. I mean, all data collected by satellites etc. that could possibly explain the source of the problem would be inaccessible, right?
    Hmm, sounds like an easy way out of the dilema - people just don't know what happened *lol*
  14. Feb 23, 2016 #13


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    The meteor is again iffy because you are talking about a naturally generated field, some property of the meteor that is very selective in the types of electricity it interferes with. But you are absolutely spot on in that information about this object would be sketchy at best, if all communications went out the moment it hit the atmosphere then 150 years later all we have are tales passed down orally. There could be plenty of speculation on what it was, some think its a meteor, some think it was a secret government satellite weapon that malfunctioned and some think its aliens. In the end it doesn't matter how implausible any given solution is because it is not you the author providing the solution as fact, it is your characters providing their own personal opinion on what they think it is, it doesn't matter if they are wrong :)
  15. Feb 23, 2016 #14
    That is actually brilliant, especially since the reason why is really not the point of the story...why didn't I think of that myself? *lol*

    So I guess I'm left with the second part of the question...how disruptive would it actually be? I mean, these people didn't just forget about indoor plumbing and automobile traffic. No electricity would mean no mineral oil, but steam engines would work, or would they be simply too complicated to construct?
  16. Feb 23, 2016 #15


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    Well there is still plenty that can be done with gas driven power. Steam engines even simple internal combustion engines so you do have a society capable of industrialization but without access to electrical power you are bottle-necking them at about 19th century tech more or less. What you do have to consider is the social ramifications of this event. When catastrophe happened, there would have been global chaos and what you are looking at is pretty much a post apocalyptic recovery, This gives you the freedom to shape civilization any way you think it might have reformed after such a disaster.
  17. Feb 23, 2016 #16
    Sooo much freedom :wideeyed: it's a little mind-boggling after I've been trying to find a way around the whole electricity problem for a while now.
    Thank you very much, you have been a great help.
  18. Feb 23, 2016 #17
    We are talking about a fundamental principle of the laws of physics here. Electricity is either a potential difference of electrons or the movement of those electrons across apotential and it is closely related to magnetism, but electricity works in the absence of air, humidity, magnetic fields, you name it.

    A false vacuum (read the link I provided in that post) is a change in the energy ground state of the universe. Being a biologist you will have had courses in chemistry, which start out with atomic theory. Think of a electrons in their ground state. They exist in the lowest energy state possible, but if it turned out it were not actually the lowest possible state the electron could be in and some mechanism kicked the electron into that new lower state it would upset the properties of that atom.

    For a false vacuum to achieve a lower ground state you must have some form of event that kicks or excites the ground state into a much higher energy state first to climb up that mountain, then roll down to a lower potential.


    Now, my atomic example is not actually representative of what happens with a false vacuum. It's more like an analogy. Instead of changing the properties of an atom, a false vacuum changes the properties of the universe by dinking with some of the universe's fundamental constants in physics. It wouldn't take much of a change in any one of those constants to have catastrophic effects on how the universe functions.

    For your story I am thinking that maybe this idea might be the backstory for why your world does not follow the rules like it used to. Bear in mind, any false vacuum change will expand at the speed of light (or nearly so) and not stop until the universe is consumed. Chances are we would not see it coming. Even if we did we would not be able to do a thing about. Sorry about our luck.
  19. Feb 23, 2016 #18
    Very true. Is not electricity fundamentally a potential difference of electrons?
  20. Feb 23, 2016 #19
    The only scenario that takes us back to a pre-electrical age, that I can think of, is one where the human population has dropped below a level that can support an industrial society.
  21. Feb 23, 2016 #20
    The most likely and believable way that a global blackout can be nearly permanent is if the sun generated a solar flare that is big enough to fry all electronics but small enough not to engulf the planet. Another is a man made global blackout, however the idea the every country would launch their nukes and detonate them at a near space altitude seems unlikely, but a similar event would happen, a complete blackout. The solar flare idea would be a more likely idea since solar activity has been known to disrupt electronics on Earth. You would still have lightning and thunder of course, but it would take years, perhaps even decades or centuries, to restore the technology that we lost.
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