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Alternate History


Actaeon
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Let's play a game.

Propose a change to the course history, big or small, and we'll try to figure out how it would have altered the course of things.

 

For what I assume are obvious reasons, I'm starting with the assassination of John F Kennedy. You can either assume no attempt on his life or a botched job. Does he win in '64? Does RFK or LBJ campaign in '68? Is the former still targeted for assassination? What does it mean for the Democratic Party? The Vietnam War? Civil Rights? America as a whole? The world?

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I assume that JFK would have won in '64, after all most presidents do. The fight to be the democratic nominee in '68 would have been pretty ugly with the Kennedy dynasty versus LBJ's connections to the establishment. Based on JFK's brief time in office and focus on Green Berets, I will assume that he did not escalate the Vietnam war and kept it as a relatively small counter-insurgency focused operation. I do not think that the outcome would have changed, since we never succeeded in making an effective government in South Vietnam. I believe that North Vietnam would have continued to escalate things and as we lost advisors we would have decided that it was not worth it and pulled our forces out, allowing South Vietnam to fall to a conventional invasion, just like in History.

I do not think that the "Great Society" would have been pushed nearly as hard, resulting in a slower growth in entitlement programs and federal government power. This combined with a smaller scale Vietnam war would result in us entering the 1980's with a greatly reduced national debt. I do believe that Civil Rights would have followed essentially the same path that it did. Kennedy was probably more interested in civil rights than Johnson (not to hard), but was concerned about congressional support.

The democrats would have had a better chance in the election of '68 without the escalation of the Vietnam war. Nixon may still have been able to take advantage of what would have been a very punishing battle between RFK and LBJ for the nomination (assuming no RFK assassination) and win the presidency.

A LBJ or RFK presidency in '68 may have delayed the thaw of US relations with the PRC. After all, there is an old Vulcan saying: "only Nixon could go to China." Ultimately I do not know how much effect this would have had on the world as PRC/USSR relations were collapsing on their own. Even without the distraction of a large Vietnam war, I do not think that we would have stopped the crushing of the Prague Spring.

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Spiro Agnew was Nixon's they can't impeach me because they hate Agnew even more. It wasn't until after Ford became vice president that anyone considered getting rid of Nixon.

 

A nomination fight between LBJ and RFK might have caused the Republicans to push a more extremist candidate since the Democrats would have been less likely to support the one that won. The war would have been less of an issue so Goldwater might have tried again for the nomination on domestic issues.

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If Nixon wins, then yes, I think Watergate still happens. Of course in my previous post, I am biased in that I do not get the veneration of the Kennedy clan. I therefore focused more on what I consider LBJ's two biggest pushes (escalation of the Vietnam War and the increase of entitlements in the "Great Society") then what JFK would have done had he remained alive.

A big question is if the American people would still be as fascinated with JFK had their been eight years of him instead of his assassination. Would the public ignored his vices (after all, Clinton was just a cheap knockoff of JFK) for eight years? How far would LBJ and J Edgar Hoover gone to prevent an RFK presidency (I am not talking about assassination, just revealing what they knew about the Kennedy's personal lives)? The whole Camelot thing was based on the myth of a handsome, young, energetic president with his beautiful wife and wonderful family. Many people choose not to believe the mild rumors at the time about what his personal life was really like. I believe in a SF book (I think it was Number of the Beast) one of the parallel worlds had at least six successive terms of Kennedy's as president (presumably JFK, RFK then Teddy).

The Goldwater versus Nixon campaign would have been interesting. With a smaller Vietnam war, the public might have found a more confrontational approach to the Cold War acceptable, though I tend to doubt it.

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Well, that was enlightening. I guess I'll use that as a starting point but and move backward. New scenario: The Allies win World War II, but without the atom bomb. Germany surrenders under more or less identical circumstances, but victory in Japan is the product of a long and bloody land war in which they refuse to capitulate until they're almost totally occupied.

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Here is my stab at it.

The war lasts until late 1946 or early 1947. The USSR mainly stays out of the fight for the home islands and concentrates on territory in mainland Asia. At the end of the War with Japan, the US has taken a lot higher casualties then we of course did in real life and is not in a position to object when the USSR ignores the dividing line for the occupation of Korea and maintains control of the entire peninsula through the establishment of a Communist puppet government. The ROC falls a little faster but still successfully evacuates to Formosa.

Without a divided Korea, there is not a Korean war. UN peacekeeping activities occur at a dramatically smaller rate than in real life. The US economy is weaker in the late 1940s and early 1950s due to the loss of an additional 2-3% of the productive workforce due to WWII KIAs being 2-3x as high as in reality. While still a small percentage compared to Germany and the USSR, this results in another wave of isolationism. While the US does join and host the UN as the only country capable of doing so, the Marshall plan is greatly scaled back and US support of NATO is less. The Berlin blockade succeeds in causing the evacuation of the UK, France and US occupation forces from West Berlin, but results in the reinforcement of US forces in the remaining area of West Germany and a falling out between the US and USSR. USSR support for "revolutionary" and "anti-colonial" groups in the 1950s increases, US support for "democratic" groups is initially low, but increases as the 1950s continue. The successful elimination of French Forces from Vietnam emboldens the USSR and PRC even more.

 

1. The US successfully developed at Atomic Bomb but did not use it. While the USSR is familiar with the results of the Trinity tests, developing Atomic and Nuclear bombs of their own is less of a priority, delaying their program several years. The US nuclear weapons program is slower as well. This does not have much effect in the US, but in the USSR, more resources are put into the space program and their lead over the US increases. The UK, French and PRC weapons programs are delayed even more substantially. Without the Korean War, no US intervention in the fall of Indochina but little USSR/PRC involvement in the revolutionary groups in the Philippines, there is not any direct Superpower confrontations until the Cuban crisis. That confrontation in this scenario is more likely to have gone nuclear and to have resulted in serious damage to both the USSR and the US.

If the nuclear exchange happened, then a nuclear arms race in Europe would have ensued while the US and USSR would have been less active cleaning up their own countries. The PRC would take over the lead for exporting communism.

Without the nuclear exchange over Cuba, then first use could very well have been Israel in 1967 or more likely 1973. It is likely that Iraq, Iran, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil would be nuclear powers by the end of 1980s.

 

2. The US did not successfully develop an Atomic Bomb and did not develop atomic energy. It probably would have taken into at least the 1980s for another country to decide to pursue and apparently blind alley for research, with the USSR being the most likely, possibly followed by the FRG. The potential superpower flashpoint remains Cuba. With the USSR using Castro's Cuba as a stepping point to export revolution into the Western Hemisphere, mid 1950s America possibly gets concerned enough to launch an invasion of Cuba. The USSR is not able to effectively intervene since it does not have Atomic weapons or the power projection apparatus for conventional forces and so Cuba falls to the US.

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With the US weaken from island to island fighting in order to end the war against Japan, the US government shifts towards isolationism. When the British protectorate of Palestine is partitioned into Jordan, Palestine, and Israel, the Soviet Union is the first to recognize the Jewish state of Israel. During the War of Independence as the Arab states attack Israel, the Soviet Union sends weapons to Israel and allows Jewish soldiers to leave the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to help out. They also use the war to attack south into Iran and Iraq in support of Israel and obtain the long sought southern port in the Persian Gulf.

 

Great Britain and France come to support their former colonies in the Mid East to block further Soviet Union advances. They are forced to accept Soviet puppet governments in Iran and Iraq in order to prevent the Israeli capture of the Suez Canal. So going into the 1950s, the Soviets and Western Europe settle into a Cold War with both sides trying to gain control of the Mid East oil resources. Israel joins the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union establishes military bases in captured Arab lands in Greater Israel.

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It all depends on how many of the Japanese were willing to die. At Iwo Jima, we had a three to one advantage in personnel and a huge advantage in equipment. US KIA were 1:3 Japanese Empire KIAs. Okinawa, US KIA were 1:6 enemy KIAs, with at least one third of the enemy force being minimally equipped and trained civilians. If just the remaining Japanese military units had fought to the death, then a 1:10 ratio of KIAs would have resulted in 100,000 US dead. If 5,000,000 civilians had fought (certainly possible), at a 1:50 ratio would have meant another 100,000 US dead. The official estimates by folks who studied it more than I have were 200K-600K US KIA. My WAG of 200K US dead, would mean around 500,000-1,000,000 US WIA. Japanese losses in the millions of KIA. And all of that is assuming that there would have been a surrender at some point, not a guerrilla war.

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Alright, since no one else seems to be asking, here's another:

 

The United States chooses to accept the succession of the Confederacy rather than face a costly war. Do the two nations manage to coexist? How does the international community react? Does the north manage to maintain its claim on most US territories, or does the south manage to pick up a few? What are the implications in the long run (war, economics, science, art, literature...)

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Suddenly, Nethergate replaced the Roman/Celt Britain history part.

 

And a legendary 12 feet, 10-packed abs, woad-covered Celt leader, named Tyranicus lead the war against the Romans with his platoon of Druids. The battleground was razed, filled with ash and stinking corpses of Roman soldiers marked the victory of the Celts.

 

A mysterious crone who allied with the Romans, and was only known only by the name of Nightwatcher filled every thread with endless sacrifice of squishy and soft turtles.

 

Eventually, some dark magic lingered on the place, and touched the minds of those who are within the perimeter of the ancient battlefield. The Spiderweb Forums was now born, and those who venture through Spiderweb Forums' Door, were never heard of again.

-----

-Nightwatcher

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Harry Turtledove covered a successful secession of the South better than I ever could, that said I will opine a little bit.

 

Based on "US chooses to accept . . . rather than face a costly war", then the civil war did not happen. Without the war, I do not believe that West Virginia would have broken away from Virginia. The US would have retained the non-confederate states and territories, the CSA would have been very quickly recognized by Great Britain. Recognition by the other Western European states would have followed. With the population of the South limited in their ability to move into the Western US, they would have revised their plan to turn Cuba into three states and would either take Cuba, or since a portion of the CSA's leaders had experience with taking territory away from Mexico they would have done that. Which course of action would depend in part on who they were relying on for manufactured goods and how much influence Spain had versus France. In terms of the two countries getting along, the main source of tension would have been slavery. The CSA being pro slavery and part of the USA being anti-slavery and harboring run-aways. It is very unlikely that the USA would have adopted the emancipation proclamation or passed the 13th-15th amendments to the constitution without the Civil War. I believe that slavery would have remained a source of tension for a while, but I do not believe that it would by itself cause a new Civil War. The failure of the USA to return runway slaves to the CSA could be used to heighten emotions if the CSA decided that it needed to expand North instead of South. I believe that an expansion South would have been more likely with the CSA coming to dominate the Caribbean and eventually incorporating Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico and possibly Panama and Nicaragua. The USA would still have Alaska and Hawaii. The Philippines would not become a US possession if the US allied with Spain against the CSA. If relations with the CSA were good, than the US would seize the Philippines.

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Oh, Harry Turtledove.

 

Did he cover how the changes might play out over the next century? Surely it would have ramifications for the world wars, the development of Latin America (without so much interference by the CIA), and the rise (and fall?) of communism.

 

Nighwatcher, I'm counting your contribution as self contained since I'm not sure where to go with it, but I appreciate the participation.

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Oh, Harry Turtledove.

 

Did he cover how the changes might play out over the next century? Surely it would have ramifications for the world wars, the development of Latin America (without so much interference by the CIA), and the rise (and fall?) of communism.

He did. He wrote a series of books that ended with the end of World War II. In this series, the South freed the slaves in the late 19th century, but African Americans were still second-class citizens who couldn't vote.

 

When WWI came around the South sided with the Allies, having close ties to England and Franc, and the North sided with the Central Powers. Neither side sent troops to Europe, and instead fought a long bloody trench war in North America. During the war, African Americans in the South rose up in a socialist revolution. The were eventually crushed, but this hurt the Confederate war effort. The North fought a two-front war, holding the South at bay while they invaded Canada and successfully wrested it from British control.

 

Eventually, the Central Powers won the war, and the Allied nations were forced to pay heavy reparations to the victors. This weakened the already strained Confederate economy and caused drastic inflation. By the time the stock market crash of 1929 came around, the South was in really bad shape. From this chaos, the fascist Nazi-analogous Freedom party rose to power, and similar fascist regimes took control of France and England. The Confederates started locking away African Americans in concentration camps and eventually started murdering them.

 

Tensions increased between the two nations, and, eventually, the South invaded the North. The US fought a losing battle for a while but was able to turn the tide and utterly defeat the South, but not before both sides set off atomic bombs. The series ends with the North completely subjugating the South post-WWII.

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I did not go as far as Mr. Turtledove did and have some slightly different assumptions. He had the North fighting multiple wars with the confederates, where our starting position was that the Civil War did not happen. He also had a revolution in Utah and the North flirting with socialism much sooner then in reality.

 

In terms of the CIA's involvement in the development of Latin America, you are ignoring 100 years of US involvement/interference in Latin America prior to the creation of the CIA.

 

I personally believe that in our scenario, both the USA and CSA would have pursued fairly isolationist policies towards Europe and been more focused on expansion in Caribbean and Central and South America, with the South engaging in those efforts first. Without a war between them, I do not see the US and CSA taking opposite sides likely in WWI and later too likely. I suppose one could write a novel about the US and CSA competing for influence and territory in the Western Hemisphere with lots of proxy wars, a cold war period and occasionally a hot war.

 

To me though, given a peaceful withdrawal of the CSA from the USA, the fact that slavery was not that big of an issue for many folks in the North, I expect more of a peaceful coexistence like with Canada. Given that belief, I do not see that much difference in WWI. We played a fairly minor role and either half of the country could have done what we did. WWII is of course a different story. Both the USA and CSA had large cultural ties to Great Britain, but separately they would not have the resources that enabled the Allies to defeat the Axis. The CSA's ties to England may very well have been stronger, given that Great Britain would have been the first or at least one of the first countries to extend diplomatic recognition. The USA may still have been a rival against Japan. You could end up with a scenario where USA is drawn into WWII due to an attack on Pearl Harbor and the CSA is drawn into WWII to help Great Britain. USA would have beat Japan, CSA, GB and USSR would have beaten Germany, but it would have taken another year or so, due to the lack of industrial capacity unless the USA and CSA started working together. You could end this book with the USA and CSA deciding to become a single superpower.

 

In terms of post WWII history, the CSA with its colonial empire would be less likely to push for the termination of the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa. The rise of communism in Europe and Asia would be relatively the same, though potentially all of German would be in the Soviet sphere. If the USA completely ignored the WWII in Europe, it might have been able to extend the civil war in China, but I do not think there would have been much change there. The big difference would be that Cuba would be part of the CSA as states along with potentially other nations in Central America that have experimented with Communism, so there would be less of a foothold in the Americas.

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Is Turtledove's whole alternate history in the same continuity as The Guns of the South? If so, it's a bit different as alternate history because its premise is not just a small change that could plausibly have occurred. It's a great book, so I don't want to spoil it, but it can't be a spoiler to mention the image on the cover: Robert E. Lee with an AK-47.

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I'm going to keep going further back and hope people stay interested:

 

On Christmas 1642, Hannah Ayscoguh mourns the premature stillbirth of her son, who she planned to name after his late father, Isaac Newton.

Near the end of the century, Gottfried Leibniz submits his theory of calculus with no controversy or competition.

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Scientific discovery shifts from Great Britain to continental Europe especially Germany and the Netherlands as Isaac Newton is no longer there to have his year where he publishes several significant works. This weakens academics in Great Britain delaying the scientific revolution.

 

There is a rise in counterfeiting in Great Britain debasing the British pound.

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Along the scientific base concerning Great Britain, and partially because I can't really fathom how history would change if Newton hadn't done his business, consider this scenario. Charles Babbage successfully constructs his difference machine no. 2 and submits the design and a working model to the British government.

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The calculus is one thing; I wonder who else would have developed the laws of mechanics. Since these discoveries are often made independently by multiple people, I guess it shouldn't have taken too long...

 

Charles Babbage successfully constructs his difference machine no. 2 and submits the design and a working model to the British government.

 

If mechanical computing is developed only a few decades sooner, WW2-style cryptology could have been in use by WW1. However, I doubt it would have been as relevant as in WW2 without the rest of modern industry, because trench warfare is not as dependent on secrecy.

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I find it really hard to gauge how much change this would make. Therefore I will take the indispensable man theory to its illogical conclusion.

 

So, without Sir Isaac, there is a dramatic slow down in England's scientific advancement and industrialization. The low countries and the Holy Roman Empire lead the way in discoveries. With less scientific advancement and industrialization, England is financially weaker then what we are used to and the Royal Navy's navigation capabilities are less.

 

The '15 and the '45 still failed, but the English's weaponry advantage over the highlanders was much smaller and so the battles were bloodier and the campaigns were longer. This further weakened England compared to history.

 

While the unified Great Britain remained a trading power due to the influences of being an island nation and continued to establish colonies across the globe, these were all weaker. Despite its own failings, France in the mid 1700s was able to secure its foothold in Canada and the lands of the Mississippi. Meanwhile a resurgent Holy Roman Empire was becoming the industrial power house of Europe.

 

The American Revolution was successful with support from the Holy Roman Empire and France, seeking to pare back Great Britain's far flung empire. With the fall of the crown of France, a series of coalition wars broke out in Western Europe. The War of the first coalition resulted in a draw with the nations of Europe surprised by the French military reforms. The resurgent Holy Roman Empire learned from its mistakes in the War of the First Coalition and successfully employed its financial and technological advantages to forge the Second Coalition which proceeded to stop the French forces short of Italy ushering in another brief peace while Napoleon seized power. The Holy Roman Empire gathered together the third coalition which successfully defeated the French Navy at Sea, though at the cost of almost the entire Royal Navy. It was also successful in pulling Batvia and Switzerland out of the French Empire and led to another brief period of peace. Finally, the Fourth coalition succeeded in overthrowing Napoleon and restoring the Bourbons to France.

 

The Holy Roman Empire was the strongest power in Europe and other countries started to conspire against it. When the Holy Roman Empire invaded France in 1870, Russia immediately came in on France's side, forcing a two front war. The HRE successfully defended itself and was able to seize a small amount of territory due to its far superior military-industrial complex. This set the stage for WWI which ended with Eastern France under the control of the HRE, and the collapse of the British, Ottoman and Russian empires.

 

When a former Corporal from Bavaria attempted to seize power from the HRE dynasty, he was imprisoned and executed and Europe entered a time of peace.

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Aborting Isaac Newton is the kind of alternate history that I find uninteresting because there are too many plausible consequences to consider, and I can never convince myself that I've thought of them all. Newton's work had few consequences immediately, but its eventual effects were incalculable.

 

Consider first just the minimal core content of Newton's contribution to science. The laws of nature would still have been there without Newton, so someone else could have figured them out. On the other hand, humans had gone thousands of years before Newton without discovering the laws of motion. Perhaps it would have taken centuries for someone else to do the job. So in talking about the absence of Isaac Newton, it's unclear whether we're talking about the absence of basic physics, or not.

 

It's also unclear how much of subsequent history really depended on Newton's basic discoveries. Many technological advances were made purely empirically, by people who never even tried to solve Newton's equations. On the other hand, Newton's well-known success in reducing so much of nature to simple equations may have given everyone on the planet a subconscious optimism that encouraged tinkering.

 

Then there's the fact that Newton's insights took a particular detailed form, which might have been different even if somebody else had found the same basic ideas. Newton talked about moons and planets and comets, when perhaps he could have had a more terrestrial context instead, and perhaps made the launching of physics as we know it into more of a break from the astronomical tradition that dated back to ancient Egypt and Sumeria. Perhaps an alternative Newton could have incorporated some kind of philosophical slant that would otherwise have shaped later science differently. Or perhaps Newtonian physics is digitally mastered, as it were: it is what it is, a set of notes that are exactly the same no matter who plays them, and neither Newton nor any alternative Newton could have colored them or spun them any differently. These things are all very hard to imagine.

 

Finally, this kind of 'big' alternate history makes me unsure what it even means to ask what would have happened if everything was the same except for one thing (in this case, Newton). We don't know enough about what 'the same' really means. Perhaps there really was this other kid, born just twenty years after Newton, who also had some funny thoughts about geometry and planets, and then found that Newton had already done this stuff, so he gave it all up without making any mark on history at all. Is it an additional wild speculation to postulate that kid, as well as removing Newton? Or is it an additional wild speculation, to leave that kid out?

 

Maybe what we mean by "What if no Newton?" is really "What if there were no Newton or any other person like him in his time?", because that's the interesting question. But if we're bundling speculations together just because the packaged speculations are more interesting, how do we know where to stop? Should we say that "What if no Newton?" really means "What if no Newton and no moon?" because that's the more interesting question? That ought to be taking it much too far, but I'm not sure how to draw the line above the slippery slope.

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Should we say that "What if no Newton?" really means "What if no Newton and no moon?" because that's the more interesting question?

 

That would just get derailed into a discussion about what it would mean for Earth to have minimal tides, shorter days, and a wobbling axis that results in extreme seasonal and climatic variation. Heck, considering how close early Homo sapiens came to extinction already, a more difficult climate may have pushed us over the edge. And that's assuming the history of life on Earth wasn't changed so much that hominids could evolve in the first place!

 

Dikiyoba wanted to make a joke about the lack of werewolves, but hypothetical moonless climate change ruined that. Climate change ruins everything.

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Exactly. With no moon, there might have been no terrestrial life, because maybe evolution into tidal zones was a crucial intermediate step. All the proportionally big-brained sea creatures are mammals that went back to the sea from the land, so with no terrestrial life, maybe there'd be no intelligent life. Earth's moon appears to be anomalously large, so it's conceivable that intelligent life is rare in the universe because big moons are rare. Or maybe: no, tides weren't important, big moons are no big deal, and intelligent life isn't rare for that reason; maybe it isn't even rare at all.

 

Changing things with far-reaching implications is only interesting, in my opinion, if you have a specific set of consequences in mind, and you just want to tell that story. It's only with simpler details that had limited and immediate consequences that I can see a well-posed problem in "What would have happened if...?".

 

Embarrassing true fact: shortly after my PhD defense I was sitting around a table with half a dozen physicists, including at least two successful professors of theoretical physics, and it occurred to me to ask why there were two high tides every 24-hour day, when there was only one moon in the sky. I had never thought about this before. No-one at the table had a good answer.

 

This was bad, because the connection between the moon and the tides was the decisive proof of Newtonian physics. My packaging of Newton and moon together wasn't just facetious; it's a serious possibility that what really defines Newton's role in history is the tidal effect of the moon. Newton figured it out, and the moon making tides was his smoking gun proof that he had it right, precisely because he could explain why there were two tides each day, and not just one. It's not just that the moon pulls up the water in a heap, and the earth's surface rotates through the heap. It's more complicated than that.

 

In Germany everyone knows this, because Newtonian tides are in the standard undergraduate curriculum. In Canada this wasn't so, and from a modern point of view there may not be any reason it should have been. It shows how smart Newton was, though. Pretty smart.

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One thought I have pondered over for years: what if the ancient greeks had had fossil fuels? (ie. Easily accessible gas, oil or coal.) They had basic steam engines worked out, and knew of the existance of electricity. Maybe, if they had actually had motive and possibility to advance their engines, well, who knows?

 

(edit: spelling fixed)

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And, a tangent on the moonlessness thought, what if earth were a moon of a gas giant? I know no reason why it should be inhospitable. I do know the sky would be quite a bit more amazing than it is on our earth! Also, I have often wondered about Jeffs cavescape idea. Could large caves form and remain stable as a planet of certain geological/geochemical composition cools down? Most matter contracts on cooling, maybe not enough for such large caves to form. Not that I have any concrete facts on this subject.

 

 

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Also, I have often wondered about Jeffs cavescape idea. Could large caves form and remain stable as a planet of certain geological/geochemical composition cools down?

Earth has some pretty frickin' huge cave systems (as in hundreds of miles long), and we certainly haven't found them all yet. Not as big as Exile/Avernum, perhaps (well, maybe as big as the second Avernum trilogy caves), but big enough. It's the lack of magical glowing lichen that prevents large lifeforms from evolving deep within caves.

 

Dikiyoba.

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One thought I have pondered over for years: what if the ancient greeks had had fossil fuels? (ie. Easily accessible gas, oil or coal.) They had basic steam engines worked out, and knew of the existance of electricity. Maybe, if they had actually had motive and possibility to advance their engines, well, who knows?

 

No, they didn't really have steam engines. They had aeolipiles. Aeolipiles are astonishingly ancient, but they're not useful. You can get one to spin around, but good luck getting it to do any actual work. It just won't actually generate any significant force, unless you can make it strong enough to hold enormous pressure, and heat it enough to generate that pressure. Ancient societies couldn't do either of those things. Even then it's not a good steam engine, because it doesn't condense the steam again, just blows it out, which is why aeolipiles have remained toys for over two thousand years, and never been used by anyone as practical engines.

 

Saying that the ancient Greeks had steam engines because they had aeolipiles would be like saying that they had airplanes because they had paper airplanes. (Of course they didn't have paper. Vellum airplanes?)

 

(The idea that Heron of Alexandria invented a steam engine that would open temple doors seems to have been a conflation of two different devices that Heron described. The door opener was actually a different device, not a steam engine at all.)

 

I don't see how the ancients really knew about electricity, either. The word 'electricity' is derived from the Greek word for amber, because rubbing amber makes static easily. (It's a good insulator with a smooth surface, or something, I guess.) I read once that there was some archeological evidence for ancient chemical Voltaic cells, but these could at best have been for tricks, making sparks or shocks. To do anything useful with electricity, you need a generator to make a steady current, and generators and electric motors are quite tricky devices. There's nothing intuitive about them, and they don't work like anything else. They're crackpot contraptions with coils of wire rotating in magnetic fields. You wouldn't set out to make one unless you knew the quite advanced theory; and you wouldn't likely stumble on them while messing around, unless you were a YouTube genius building a perpetual motion flying saucer, and you'd only be that if you knew that electric motors existed. They weren't invented until after Michael Faraday had discovered the phenomenon by which they work, electromagnetic induction, in 1821.

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The Greeks, Romans and Assyrians had at least a limited access to petroleum products, they made limited use of them in warfare and construction. The Egyptians and Babylonians had access to Bitumen from the dead sea area and used it for some construction and water proofing. A lot of their incendiary devices were sulfur based, not naphtha based, but they did have at least some access. There were also aware of the use of Bitumen in construction. The Byzantines made very effective use of what is most likely a mixture with Naphtha, but of course that was 1000 years after the height of the Greeks.

 

The problem with most fossil fuels is that they require refining to be particularly useful.

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You could run an impressively useful steam engine by burning wood, and coal would be even better. The main bottleneck, I think, is not refining the fuel, but rather attaining the metallurgy and machining to make the engine itself. The whole advantage of combustion engines, over simple devices with wound-up cords or falling weights, and over animal or slave power, is that engines can generate tremendous force. The engines themselves have to be strong enough to contain that force. A combustion engine that isn't made of very strong material is just a bomb (though maybe a fizzling bomb, if it leaks too much to build up high pressure).

 

So a useful engine really has to be made of metal, and even that's not enough: the metal has to be strong everywhere, because the thing will break if it's weak at any point. Worst of all, for combustion engines you need to have metal parts that fit closely enough to seal against high-pressure gas, and yet slide freely enough past each other not to jam. So you need really good metalworking for engines, not just the ability to pound lumps of iron until they're fairly flat.

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Yes, you need all of those things to build a good steam engine, and in addition to the tight tolerances, there is a limit to how much useless impurities you can have in your metals or you will end up with weak areas. Of course if you do not care about the engine going anywhere you can just over design it by a large safety margin, but you still need the ability to weld.

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