What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

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Vroomfundel
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What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Vroomfundel » Tue Jun 11, 2013 8:03 am UTC

What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly switched off?

Image

Apart from the doom of humanity, some pretty good things too, as it turns out
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rivulatus
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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby rivulatus » Tue Jun 11, 2013 8:10 am UTC

I think I shall follow his miking advise, now to find a large ax to atack it with if I ever bump into some.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Quicksilver » Tue Jun 11, 2013 8:14 am UTC

I still think the sun is evil. We're also creatures of adaptability, I'm sure some of us would survive long enough to find a solution to the problem.
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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby rhomboidal » Tue Jun 11, 2013 8:16 am UTC

Yeah, I probably wouldn't be all that bummed if the sun went out. I'm a terrible tanner.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Klear » Tue Jun 11, 2013 8:24 am UTC

I think Randall is severely underestimating the threat posed by vampires.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby solune » Tue Jun 11, 2013 8:36 am UTC

I recommand the brilliant short story "A Pail of Air" (google it), in which air is frozen solid, and people live to tell the story.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby squonk » Tue Jun 11, 2013 8:43 am UTC

Genesis made a song about this.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o02v0hkq3IA

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby willpellmn » Tue Jun 11, 2013 8:52 am UTC

Oh, come ON Randall! All that talk about the upside, and you're not even going to consider the possibility that we could come up with an alternate method of heating the portions of the earth we live on (and possibly some nature preserves if we feel like starting to care about the wilderness all of a sudden, something our species tends not to bother with overall), and solving other associated problems such as producing food without plants photosynthesizing? It'd be absurdly difficult, sure, but at least say so, and do the rudiments of a cost/benefit analysis to demonstrate how far away from being feasible it is.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Vroomfundel » Tue Jun 11, 2013 9:09 am UTC

Agreed, the upsides are funny but there is ample room for speculation on ways humanity can survive, at least for a while - geothermal vents, nuclear-heated domed cities, fast-track research into nuclear fusion, ultra-intensive prayer...
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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Copper Bezel » Tue Jun 11, 2013 9:15 am UTC

For certain values of humanity there. The world population couldn't possibly survive; small colonies certainly could survive more or less indefinitely on geothermal heat. Kinda back to zero, if one considers the possibility that life began near ocean vents. = )

Edit: Hmm. I wonder what the carrying capacity of Earth would really be assuming that humans were the primary animal biomass and that geothermal sources provided all energy. I guess I'm assuming a bunch of Dr. Strangelove kind of underground hideaways, but my instinct to think that such things would be scarce isn't based on the fact that they couldn't be built damned-near anywhere; it's based on the fact that someone would have to build those, too, and the labor is not going to equal the capacity for any one complex. So unless you have some very unpleasant social structures forming very rapidly as soon as the sun goes out - and admittedly, it really would take about eight minutes for them to get started - it's hard to see how anything could get built to support anyone. The question of just how many people could survive by finding existing resources and the infrastructure to make a sustainable system, and then doing that, is a lot more complex, and it would be interesting to suss just which spots on Earth would work out and how.

Klear, the article focuses purely on the positives, so I think he's assuming that most of the drawbacks are obvious. For instance, he doesn't talk about the economic losses in beach tourism (or even sunscreen manufacture,) which would be substantial. If we're not all thinking of vampires to begin with, we're just slow.
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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby groszdani » Tue Jun 11, 2013 11:37 am UTC

Last but not least, sun would set over the British Empire.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby tryde » Tue Jun 11, 2013 11:50 am UTC

Despite our technological advance, if the sun vanishes without warning, it is very unlikely that we can work around a solution before we are all dead. Plants will die, oceans will freeze over, what will recycle our CO2 into oxygen ? How are we going to grow food ? What will prevent the mass panic and war over the remaining habitable space ?

Better send a manhattan-sized bomb into the sun before it's too late!

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Sandman81 » Tue Jun 11, 2013 12:55 pm UTC

A more interesting question might be, if we had sufficient advance notice of the sun going out, what could be done to ensure the long-term survival of at least some members of the human race.

Presumably it would involve a lot of tunnelling

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby mathmannix » Tue Jun 11, 2013 1:12 pm UTC

Although I clicked on the first 10 or so results in my Randall-directed Google search, the one I liked best for information was (for me at this time anyway) the first result, http://www.popsci.com/node/24698.

So, it would seem that within a year, the average surface temperature would drop to -100 degrees (Fahrenheit, although it probably doesn't really matter if you interpret it as Celsius). Of course, the life that exists at the bottom of the ocean (mostly near ocean vents) might survive for quite some time, possibly hundreds of thousands of years... going as high on the food chain as those creepy deep-sea carnivorous fishes, the viperfish, hatchetfish, and anglerfish. But, like the humans that cluster around nuclear power plants, vents in Yellowstone and Iceland, and volcanoes around the world, they would be much scarcer, due to the lack of the "marine snow".

The article says that it would take millions of years for the planet to reach the stable temperature of -400 degrees (definitely Fahrenheit this time), where the heat coming from the core matches the heat lost to space. But how would this be affected by humans using up the core heat faster? Could we make a serious dent in that?

Anyway, it really seems that if the sun suddenly goes out, the scientists living near nuclear reactors have less than a year to make a big ark, to send to whatever they decide is the best candidate for a star system to colonize. Hopefully we get more than 8 people away this time!
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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby rmsgrey » Tue Jun 11, 2013 1:35 pm UTC

groszdani wrote:Last but not least, sun would set over the British Empire.


That is not a sunset.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby cellocgw » Tue Jun 11, 2013 2:15 pm UTC

Posting this from a deep subterranean cavern, replete with illumination source, ocean, and dinosaurs. (and hot women in skimpy animal-skin outfits, of course)

I don't see any problem at all here.
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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Moose Anus » Tue Jun 11, 2013 3:12 pm UTC

cellocgw wrote:Posting this from a deep subterranean cavern, replete with illumination source, ocean, and dinosaurs. (and hot women in skimpy animal-skin outfits, of course)

I don't see any problem at all here.
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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby armandoalvarez » Tue Jun 11, 2013 3:12 pm UTC

This reminds me of one of the things that most bothers me about The Matrix (besides using humans as perpetual motion batteries). Humans are in a war with computers, so humans decide to "scorched the sky"- pollute the sky to the point that the sun is blocked out.
Huh? 99% of computers today do not run on solar power. 100% of organic life does. Who's going to survive better, us or computers? Presumably computers as advanced as those in the matrix can drill for oil, mine for coal, frac for gas as easily as we can, and build nuclear power plants. And they can do so without worrying about the effect on the ecosystem. Whatever Neo and his buddies are doing to power Zion, they can do.
But again, it makes as much sense as feeding people dead people to use humans as batteries.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby rmsgrey » Tue Jun 11, 2013 3:44 pm UTC

armandoalvarez wrote:This reminds me of one of the things that most bothers me about The Matrix (besides using humans as perpetual motion batteries). Humans are in a war with computers, so humans decide to "scorched the sky"- pollute the sky to the point that the sun is blocked out.
Huh? 99% of computers today do not run on solar power. 100% of organic life does. Who's going to survive better, us or computers? Presumably computers as advanced as those in the matrix can drill for oil, mine for coal, frac for gas as easily as we can, and build nuclear power plants. And they can do so without worrying about the effect on the ecosystem. Whatever Neo and his buddies are doing to power Zion, they can do.
But again, it makes as much sense as feeding people dead people to use humans as batteries.


Yeah, the Matrix totally fails thermodynamics, except that it's revealed in the sequels that the official history is mostly a lie concocted by the machines, so the inconsistencies are just them not bothering to come up with anything more plausible (probably relying on the Oracle and the One to convince any doubters)

Or, of course, there's the possibility someone else raised - they pointed out that everything we know about thermodynamics etc applies to the world inside the Matrix - the idea that the universe can be described by simple equations may simply be a machine's fantasy...

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby peewee_RotA » Tue Jun 11, 2013 5:45 pm UTC

rhomboidal wrote:Yeah, I probably wouldn't be all that bummed if the sun went out. I'm a terrible tanner.

What do horse saddles have to do with this?
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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby peewee_RotA » Tue Jun 11, 2013 5:46 pm UTC

He forgot to add that this would make McJagger happy.
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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby keithl » Tue Jun 11, 2013 7:06 pm UTC

If the sun goes out while I am feverishly working against a deadline, it will be a few days before I notice.

OTOH, geomagnetic disturbances (GMD) are no longer a huge problem for the grid, at least in most of the developed world. The reason they pose a threat to power systems is that many three phase power lines use a ground return for the neutral, and the long distance transmission lines plus the ground forms a loop. When the earth's magnetic field is compressed by an event, it pushes more field into the loop, and the changing field induces a DC loop voltage and current. That puts DC current through big power transformers, and if they are under heavy load already, this can push the iron cores into saturation, greatly increasing losses, and heating them until the cooling oil starts boiling. The windings and insulation stop getting cooled, and fail. All in all, a fairly slow phenomena, perhaps an hour from the start of the event to when we start losing transformers.

Don Watkins of the Bonneville Power Administration chaired the international committee to develop responses to GMDs. Mostly, they involve the dispatchers in the control rooms rebalancing loads on the three phase transformers so they are farther from saturation. After that, load shedding, blacking out some customers (mostly big industrial ones) to reduce the currents - farther from saturation, less ohmic heating too. There is a long term program to test the types of deployed transformers, identify the ones that are most vulnerable, and replace them with modern ones that are immune to neutral ground currents. Also, keep spares around.

The power control rooms are now connected to data feeds from NASA and the ACE satellite at Earth-Sun L1, our "early warning" system for large GMDs, giving them more response time. And they are modelling the regional grids better, mostly in response to the big east coast blackouts of 1965 and 2003, and also to handle the enormous perturbations caused by wind farms. GMDs are small potatoes compared to windfarms going from gigawatts to zero in a few minutes.

Will there be problems in a GMD? You bet, radiation belts will move and we will lose a lot of satellites, mostly older satellites in low earth orbit. Newer satellites are more robust - they may get doses that shorten their lifetimes, and lose a transponder or two, but they are designed with knowledge of these storms now.

Somewhere, somebody will not manage their grid correctly. I'm guessing China and India with their ramshackle lashups will be threatened. TEPCO in Japan, who demonstrated their "competence" with Fukashima Daiichi, may lose some of their grid. So our main concern after a GMD is using our functional grid and satellites to help reboot the power grids and space assets of the rest of the world. And the main concern there will be cranks blaming the event on the US, and taking revenge on the people sent to help them.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby keithl » Tue Jun 11, 2013 7:38 pm UTC

solune wrote:I recommand the brilliant short story "A Pail of Air" (google it), in which air is frozen solid, and people live to tell the story.

I'm imagining a really bad science fiction movie, produced by George Pal in an alternate universe, where the earth's scientists build a rocket and send a giant match to the sun to relight it.

Farfetched? There is the story of the delegation of US astronauts who went to Russia to meet their cosmonaut colleagues. At one evening party, one of the americans boasted that after the moon landing, our next space mission would be a landing on the Sun. A russian cosmonaut objected: "You'll be burned up!" The american responded "That's why americans are smarter than russians! We're going at night!"

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby edzieba » Tue Jun 11, 2013 9:39 pm UTC

keithl wrote:I'm imagining a really bad science fiction movie, produced by George Pal in an alternate universe, where the earth's scientists build a rocket and send a giant match to the sun to relight it.
Unlike in this universe, where it was made by Danny Boyle.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Showsni » Tue Jun 11, 2013 10:39 pm UTC

keithl wrote:
solune wrote:I recommand the brilliant short story "A Pail of Air" (google it), in which air is frozen solid, and people live to tell the story.

I'm imagining a really bad science fiction movie, produced by George Pal in an alternate universe, where the earth's scientists build a rocket and send a giant match to the sun to relight it.


Something like this?

Image

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby cjmcjmcjmcjm » Wed Jun 12, 2013 4:06 am UTC

A much better what-if question would have been "What if the sun were switched off for <finite amount of time>?"
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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby armandoalvarez » Wed Jun 12, 2013 4:28 am UTC

cjmcjmcjmcjm wrote:A much better what-if question would have been "What if the sun were switched off for <finite amount of time>?"

Perhaps a better way of wording that scenario would be "What if the sun were switched off instantaneously became a black hole and after <finite amount of time> was restored?"
If I'm not mistaken, when a star becomes a black hole it gains no mass, it's mass is just much more dense, so a planet in its orbit could continue orbiting. Staying in your orbit would seem to be pretty important in this scenario.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Copper Bezel » Wed Jun 12, 2013 4:42 am UTC

He proposes a "cold, inert sphere" in the blog, although he describes it as a stellar remnant, which would, as you say, change the orbit for loss of mass. Obviously, the sun won't become a black hole in its own life cycle, since it's not massive enough.
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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby armandoalvarez » Wed Jun 12, 2013 4:47 am UTC

Copper Bezel wrote:He proposes a "cold, inert sphere" in the blog, although he describes it as a stellar remnant, which would, as you say, change the orbit for loss of mass. Obviously, the sun won't become a black hole in its own life cycle, since it's not massive enough.

Oops, should have re-read the blog.
But since this is magic anyway, if we condensed any amount of mass to a small enough point, wouldn't it become a black hole? So in my scenario, you (somehow) squeeze the sun into a black hole, the Earth stays in orbit, cools down, Randall analyzes what happens during the finite amount of time that there's no heat coming out of the sun. Then you magically restore the sun.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Dyolf_Knip » Wed Jun 12, 2013 5:17 am UTC

I was active on an alternate history Usenet forum many years ago, and I actually recall one thread very similar to this coming up. The question was, what was the earliest point in human history where some humans could survive this, to say the least, apocalyptic event. Once you've got geothermal or, to a greater extent, nuclear power, it's easy. Depending on how much advance notice you get, you could even get some pretty impressive fraction of the human race into viable habitats. But posters suggested all kinds of very inventive ways that people as far back as the mid-19th century could manage to eek out a living for at least a little while. Assuming they liked mushrooms and didn't mind the dark, that is.

Also, there's a short story along these lines called A Pail of Air, by Fritz Leiber. Trying to post a link, but gets blocked as spam. Sorry.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Dyolf_Knip » Wed Jun 12, 2013 5:27 am UTC

armandoalvarez wrote:Then you magically restore the sun.

Brutal. All the atmosphere would have condensed into snow and ice, and then suddenly gets blasted with normal daylight? It'd cause storms powerful and destructive beyond imagining.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby pduthie » Wed Jun 12, 2013 8:12 am UTC

cellocgw wrote:Posting this from a deep subterranean cavern, replete with illumination source, ocean, and dinosaurs. (and hot women in skimpy animal-skin outfits, of course)

I don't see any problem at all here.


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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby teelo » Wed Jun 12, 2013 10:20 am UTC

So THATS whats going to cause the zombie/robot apocalypse.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Xodiac » Wed Jun 12, 2013 2:06 pm UTC

Personally, I really like the video by Vsauce on YouTube that dealt with this issue. Very insightful. Work safe.

Basically, life would be okay... for a while. Unless you take into account the panic and hysteria, of course.

/watch?v=rltpH6ck2Kc (the youtube part of the address removed, because it kept flagging this post as spam).

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby gladiolas » Wed Jun 12, 2013 2:18 pm UTC

The recent Analog SF magazine has an article which concludes that no, we are not inside a simulation--the necessary infrastructure would be much too huge. That's a relief.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby rmsgrey » Wed Jun 12, 2013 5:22 pm UTC

gladiolas wrote:The recent Analog SF magazine has an article which concludes that no, we are not inside a simulation--the necessary infrastructure would be much too huge. That's a relief.


That's like a couple of Dwarf Fortress dwarves concluding that they couldn't possibly be in a computer simulation because a dwarf-tech computer capable of simulating the world would be a mega-project larger than the largest possible embark tile. Even if their calculations are correct, their conclusion is false because they rely on an assumption that the outside world works by the same rules as their universe.

Without reading the article in question, I'm highly suspicious of their calculations too - I have seen plausible arguments that quines can't exist based on some idea that a subset of an object can't contain enough information to describe the entire object in full detail...

The other obvious mistake people often make in arguing that the universe can't be a simulation is in assuming that all 1030 or so cubic light-years are being simulated down to the planck length at intervals of the planck time - if I were setting up a Matrix-style simulation, I'd mostly just model things down to the cubic millimeter or so in the vicinity of people, and not bother keeping the simulation updated for anything on the other side of the skybox - you only need to do enough simulation to supply the data that people perceive - who'll know or care if a dozen galaxies wink out on the far side of the universe?

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Klear » Wed Jun 12, 2013 6:06 pm UTC

rmsgrey wrote:if I were setting up a Matrix-style simulation, I'd mostly just model things down to the cubic millimeter or so in the vicinity of people, and not bother keeping the simulation updated for anything on the other side of the skybox - you only need to do enough simulation to supply the data that people perceive - who'll know or care if a dozen galaxies wink out on the far side of the universe?


This is used rather well in PKD's Ubik.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby WhiteDragon » Wed Jun 12, 2013 6:09 pm UTC

Dyolf_Knip wrote:
armandoalvarez wrote:Then you magically restore the sun.

Brutal. All the atmosphere would have condensed into snow and ice, and then suddenly gets blasted with normal daylight? It'd cause storms powerful and destructive beyond imagining.

There is a star that has this happen every few hundred years, in the Vernor Vinge novel A Deepness in the Sky. There's actually a civilization that lives on a planet around said star, with everyone going into deep hibernation during the off times.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby armandoalvarez » Wed Jun 12, 2013 7:11 pm UTC

Dyolf_Knip wrote:
armandoalvarez wrote:Then you magically restore the sun.

Brutal. All the atmosphere would have condensed into snow and ice, and then suddenly gets blasted with normal daylight? It'd cause storms powerful and destructive beyond imagining.

I mean, that depends on how long this "finite amount of time" cjmcjmcjmcjm is talking about lasts. If we're talking picoseconds, I think we're good. The earth wouldn't have had long enough to cool down and cause the atmosphere to condense into ice. If we're talking 1 billion years, not so much.

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Re: What-If 0049: "Sunless Earth"

Postby Bad Hair Man » Wed Jun 12, 2013 9:41 pm UTC

WhiteDragon wrote:There is a star that has this happen every few hundred years, in the Vernor Vinge novel A Deepness in the Sky. There's actually a civilization that lives on a planet around said star, with everyone going into deep hibernation during the off times.

Ooh, creepy! It's like it's some sort of Winking Demon Star!

(Not to be confused with...

Quicksilver wrote:I still think the sun is evil.

...the evil Daystar.)
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