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9 “What Ifs…” That Would Change Everything As We Know It –

 

Life is full of little questions. What should I have for lunch? Does my bum look big in this? Is there really, objectively any point in, once again, dragging myself out of bed and into the cruel and heartless world this morning? So far, so practical, but we humans are an inquisitive bunch, and sometime we like to ponder the little “what ifs” in life. What if the Earth stopped spinning? What if all the bees disappeared?

Small changes to reality that would have a massive difference. These little hypotheticals are a fun way to keep yourself distracted from that nagging feeling of existential dread, and are a great source of entertainment and debate with your chums down the pub. So, chin up there soldier, let’s all divert our attention from the futility of existence with a couple of fun little thought experiments.

9. What If The Sun Died?

Our sun, at 4.6 billion years old, is comfortably middle aged at the moment. Scientists predict that it will kick the can in another 5 billion years or so. With any luck, we won’t be around when it happens, but let’s imagine what it would look like if the sun suddenly bought it today. First things first, if the sun did anything at all, we wouldn’t know about it until 8 minutes and 20 seconds later, as that is the length of time it takes for light to travel from the surface of the sun to the Earth.

If the sun simply switched off, obviously we would all be plunged into endless darkness, but we might well stay warm for a bit longer due to the insulating layer of atmosphere that surrounds our planet. That said, it probably still wouldn’t be comfortable. Within a week, temperatures would dip to an arctic -20°C, after a year, this dips to -75°C and continues to fall until it hits a stable -240°C. We might be able to stay warm by moving underground, particularly close to a nice warming source of geological activity.

Unfortunately, you won’t have long to enjoy your new, volcanic home, as you will starve to death pretty quickly. With the sun gone, plants can’t no longer photosynthesize and they die. Next up are the animals that eat the plants, then the animals that eat the animals that eat the plants (that’s us). This is just if the sun magically switched off (or inexplicably turned into a black hole), if the sun actually “dies” then things would potentially be a lot worse. A star of our sun’s mass is unlikely to explode, but it will probably turn into a red giant.

As the name suggests, this means that it’s going to get bigger. So big, in fact, that it will simply swallow the Earth up. The entire planet will vapourise, mixing its material with that of the sun. The last thing you will see is a fiery sky bearing down on you before you disintegrate. Eventually there will be nothing left of our solar system but burnt up ashes and some cold, dead outer planets. So that’s cheery.

8. What If The Earth Stopped Spinning?

What if something, somehow, cause the Earth to suddenly put the brakes on? Well, put it this way, you’d notice. To begin with, let’s imagine that the Earth comes screaming to a halt all at once. One of the major problems we’d have is that, just because the Earth loses momentum, it doesn’t mean that everything else does.

The Earth spins at roughly 1100 mph, meaning that everything on it is also moving at 1100 mph. If the Earth stopped, everything that wasn’t nailed down, including you, the top soil, trees, houses and the atmosphere itself, would appear to go flying westwards at phenomenal speeds. Because the atmosphere is also on the move, everything would be swept up in a global hurricane like some kind of doomsday Wizard of Oz remake.

If the Earth slowed gradually, or perhaps just never spun in the first place, then life on Earth would be drastically different. Assuming the Earth still orbits the sun, your days and nights would essentially stretch out over a year, with half spent in darkness and half spent in endless light, with long, drawn out twilight periods in between. How this would affect things like agriculture is anyone’s guess, but we probably wouldn’t come out of it well.

The good news is that you probably wouldn’t be around to suffer this, as the Earth’s magnetic field would disappear, leaving us exposed to the sun’s dangerous cosmic rays and high-energy particles. This would leave us riddled with cancer, cataracts and could cause the central nervous system to shut down. Not fun.

7. What If The Earth Was Bigger?

We’re always talking about how we’re running out of space for the ever-expanding human population. We crowd ourselves into cities, onto trains and into lifts. We’re so short of space, that you even have to share your armrest with some mouth-breather on your commute. It’s just not on. But what would happen we made it all a bit bigger to give ourselves some breathing space?

For a start, doubling the Earth’s diameter would increase its mass eightfold and the force of gravity would be twice as strong, causing your weight to double. If the Earth suddenly bloated, then everything would immediately become more difficult. You’d struggle to stand, hold anything or even lift your head. Bridges and buildings would collapse, trees would topple, plants would flatten, animals would freak out, unable to move.

Alternatively, if the Earth had always been double the size, life would look very different. We probably would have evolved to either a short, stocky troll race, capable of withstanding the increased gravity, or taller, thinner and lighter, with light but insubstantial bodies – we might even walk on all fours. Other life would be the same. Strong, woody stems would take the place of delicate flowers and plants, trees would be shorter and wider, flying animals may well be fewer and further between.

6. What If There Was No Moon?

It is thought that the Earth got its rocky companion following a cataclysmic collision with a Mar-sized planet during the early days of the solar system, but what if it had missed? Apart from providing a silvery nightlight, the moon actually has a big impact on the workings of our planet. For a start, there would be no tides.

This may not seem so disastrous now, but back in the early days of our planet’s history, the moon was much closer, and therefore caused much greater tidal shifts. These prehistoric tides are thought to have helped stir up the primordial soup, mixing together the building blocks of life itself. The moon has also acted as a brake on the Earth for the past 4 billion years or so, slowing its rotation from a six hour day to our more familiar 24 hours. Our circadian rhythms, and perhaps even our society, would look very different if we were still on the six-hour schedule.

Away from the more practical lunar effects, the moon has had a massive influence on us as a thinking species. Since the dawn of man, it has given us a reason to look up; without the moon, we may never have formulated our ideas about the universe, and we may never have ventured out beyond the safety of our atmosphere. Without a moon to aim for, would it ever have occurred to us to explore space?

5. What If All The Bees Disappeared?

We hear a lot, these days, about the bees disappearing. Most of us are aware that this probably isn’t a good thing, but how much of an impact do these buzzy balls of fuzz really have? If the bees disappeared tomorrow, we’d have more to worry about than a honey shortage. Bees are prolific pollinators. Basically, if it has a flower, a bee has probably hit that.

They’re so central to agriculture, being directly responsible for nearly $200 billion of revenue, that professional beekeepers are employed all over the world to ensure that the bees are where they need to be. Despite this effort, however, they’re disappearing. This would mean that anything pollinated by the little guys is also going to be in short supply.

Love your morning coffee? Well, better start weaning yourself off it now as you currently have the bees to thank for that one. Oh, and tea. And orange juice. Don’t even think about a nice glass of milk, either, because bees also pollinate a wide range of animal feeds. If we lose those, then we also lose livestock from which we get milk, cheese, meat and eggs. Whilst we’re at it, you should probably get a taste for Lycra, as cotton plants are out.

Basically, without the bees, you’ll be living on a diet of corn and rice (they’re wind-pollinated), wearing a hideous 80s jumpsuit and dreaming of the last time you saw a flower.

4. What If The Asteroid That Killed The Dinosaurs Missed?

Since the birth of the solar system, that asteroid was set on a collision course with the Earth, but if it had somehow missed us, what would the world look like today? Whilst it wasn’t just the famous meteor impact that killed off the dinosaurs, as dinosaur population was already going through a slump, the chances are that it’s pretty much what did it for them in the end.

Although the dinos were having a pretty rough time with environmental changes when the big rock hit, they were a resilient bunch, having previously survived the break-up of pangea and massive climate change, so they probably would have pulled through. One of the major differences, at least from our perspective, is that humans would probably never have evolved. Mammals and dinosaurs coexisted all those years ago, but with mammals mainly fulfilling the role of “lunch”. Without any major upheaval, there’s no reason why this wouldn’t continue.

So, if dinosaurs had survived that extra 65.5 million years, what would they have evolved into? There are those who reckon they might have turned into the reptilian version of humans – intelligent, bipedal and technologically advanced – however, that’s a pretty anthropocentric way of thinking, and probably not what would have happened.

They would have continued to diversify, becoming weirder and more varied as time went on, some may have even become warm-blooded, like birds, to deal with the ice age. They may have evolved higher levels of intelligence, like the big-brained Troodontidae that emerged towards the end of the age of the dinosaurs. All the time, humans would still be stuck in the “scurrying around in burrows” stage.

3. What If Women Were In Charge?

Don’t worry, you can read this entry without burning your bra. Historically speaking, it is generally the rule that the blokes are in charge. However, some anthropologists have begun to wonder what the world would look like, had it grown up under a matriarchy. Whilst we can only speculate how it would world on a global scale, it’s possible to glimpse this parallel world by looking at the handful of societies around the world that are matriarchies.

Interestingly, often in matriarchal and matrilineal societies, marriage is not institutionalised, such as with the Mouso of China, and if it happens at all, divorce is not the taboo subject that it has been historically. A possible reason for this could be that, because women are the ones having the babies, reproductive rights do not need to be controlled so tightly as they already belong to the “dominant” gender. Speaking of reproduction, the Aka, a nomadic people from central Africa, are considered to be the best fathers in the world.

Fathers here are thought to engage with their children up to five times as much as in other societies and will even offer their nipple to soothe an infant without a second thought. Male and female roles in Aka society are virtually interchangeable, something that was thought to be common in many hunter-gatherer societies throughout history. It is usually only with the invention of agriculture, and therefore the opportunity to accumulate wealth and status, that stricter, male-dominated hierarchies come into play.

These examples are all pretty egalitarian so far, but what about a society in which the women actually rule? In Meghalaya, India, the women hold all the power in a virtually identical way to men in other societies. Family name and property is passed down the female line, women control the finances, men are often kept out of higher education to become husbands and work the fields, and the birth of a baby girl is met with jubilation, whereas a boy’s birth is less of a cause for celebration.

There is also a burgeoning men’s suffrage movement, members of which are fighting for men’s rights and “just want to bring the men up to where the women are.” Sounds familiar. It looks like no one likes to be oppressed, regardless of gender.

2. What If The Plague Never Happened?

The Black Death decimated most of Europe in the 1300s and is estimated to have killed off as much as 60% of the population. This, as you might imagine, had a few knock-on effects. You might think, had the plague not set us back a few million people, that our population now would be much higher. This is probably not the case, as there are other limiting factors on population.

In the 14th century, agriculture and technology were not yet advanced enough to support a significant population boom like we see today. The whole starving-to-death thing probably would have done the trick quite nicely, in the absence of sweeping pestilence. Ironically, we might actually have the plague to thank for the technological advancement that allows us to fire out babies with such abandon today. The plague had a nasty habit of killing off the lower classes.

The problem with this is that it’s like knocking out the bottom of a pyramid, as the posh nobs suddenly found themselves noticeably short of worthless serfs to labour their land. This labour deficit suddenly put the peasants in high demand, giving them the power to negotiate pay, perks and generally-not-being-treated-like-dirt. They were no longer the de facto property of the rich folk. It should surprise no one to learn that the newly-powerful peasants thought that feudal serfdom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and this led almost directly to the peasants’ revolt and creating a burgeoning middle class.

And what do you get when you have a middle class? Business. Industry. Most notably, The Industrial Revolution. So, if you’re looking for someone to thank for our modern world, maybe show a little appreciation for a little bacterium by the name of Yersinia pestis.

1. What If Humans Disappeared?

Okay, forget the the bees for a second. What would happen if all the humans on Earth (okay, and the ones in space), simply disappeared? Let’s presume, for the sake of a less disturbing mental image, that we all just evaporated out of existence for no good reason. The first thing that would happen is that the power stations would grind to a halt, cutting power and electricity.

On the positive side, the electric fences would go off, allowing livestock to roam free. On the negative, most of them would be fairly ill-equipped to survive long without human intervention, and your poor, pampered house pets wouldn’t stand a chance one the lights go out, the heating goes off and they have to fend for themselves. As flood defences, dams, reservoirs and pumping stations break down, many of our cities will flood, creating a sort of urban wetland. Beyond that, vegetation begins to take over, including your carefully weeded garden. Structures will rot, wood first, but eventually followed by steel as it is overcome by rust.

It is generally thought that the biosphere would return to how it was before humans began their meddling, over the next millennium or so, although the distribution of species would be drastically altered due to escaped zoo animals. Eventually, all that will be left of our once great civilisation will be plastic. Plastic is not readily broken down by natural processes, and will continue to be cycled through the Earth long after we are gone. One day, alien archaeologists might visit our planet and wonder what happened to the great plastic empire that once lived there, as they delicately brush soil from a Tesco bag and put it in a museum.

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