The Science of The Time Machine

time-machine-coverIn a time where social Darwinism was playing with dangerous ideas, Wells brightly reads into human biology and culture. His astronomy wasn’t as good though.

I don’t read anything I can watch.

Usually I follow that. But I’m on holidays!

And I got bored…

Then, last couple of days I lay down on my balcony, and I read H. G. Well’s The Time Machine. And I did read it in spite of the two well-known movies based on that story.

No introduction is needed, of course. The Time Machine is a classical beyond SciFi genre. It has been on my to-read list for a long time. And I am glad I finally got to read it.

To me it was fascinating to touch Wells’ world. Specially to see the future through his Victorian eyes.

The final version of the novel was published in 1895, before quantum mechanics, before relativity. But it is hard SciFi: apart of the Time Machine itself, Wells only plays with the science he had in hands—mechanics, thermodynamics, evolution of species—to build the story.

Let me share some thoughts about that…

Life and Death of the Sun

When the Time Traveler travels to almost one million years in the future, he finds that the sun is hotter after swallowing an inner planet. Then he travels few million years more, and finds that the sun had evolved into a colder orange star. Finally, he travels thirty million years further and the sun is on its last days, as a dimly red star. It’s better to hear from the traveler himself:

“I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat, and now and then suffering a momentary extinction (…) At last, more than thirty million years hence, the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens.”

No, Wells wasn’t predicting that the sun was going into a red giant, as discovered few decades later. The sun was large in the sky just because Earth was on a spiraling down orbit, standing closer to the sun than today.

Funny enough, the idea that a star would turn red in its later life was relatively common in the middle of the nineteenth century, but had been dismissed by the end of the century. A very popular astronomy book published five years before The Time Machine already explained that

“The line of stellar evolution indicated by recent inquires is from red stars with banded spectra, through yellow stars with metallic-line spectra to white stars distinguished by almost exclusive hydrogen-absorption.” Agnes Mary Clerke, The System of the Stars, 1890.

Clerke was also not quite right, but what could they do without knowing about nuclear fusion?

Colors apart, Well’s time scales were also wrong by, say, one order of magnitude. The type of changes in the sun that he envisaged will be occurring not within few million, but in few billion years.

Anyway, Wells and the Victorians got right the idea of stellar evolution. As Clerke eloquently put it:

“The heavens live and move, and the laws of their life and motion involve the material destiny of man. It is impossible that he should be indifferent to them.”

Radical Darwinism

Beyond science fiction, Wells’ The Time Machine is a fantasy on natural history. He clearly wants to frame cosmology, biology, and society as interconnected bodies evolving through natural laws. And he does it brilliantly.

Human culture for him isn’t apart of nature, but rather an exploration of an ecological niche. His account of how intelligence is an evolutionary strategy is probably more adapted to our time than to his own:

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

Standing far from the social Darwinism surrounding him, for Wells human species isn’t the climax of evolution. We will keep evolving, with a deep entanglement of our biology and social history. And progress isn’t certain, as the tale of the elois and morlocks ensures.

When the Time Traveler finally realizes that humans had evolved into two subspecies related as prey and predator, he bitterly concludes:

“The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work. No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed.”

And evolution won’t stop there: thirty million years later, our descendents would be no clever than rodents:

“At first I thought they were rabbits, or some small breed of kangaroo. Then, as one came hopping near me, I perceived that it belonged to neither of these groups. It was plantigrade, its hind legs rather the longer; it was tailless, and covered with a straight greyish hair that thickened about the head into a Skye terrier’s mane. (…) I was surprised to see that the things had five feeble digits to both its fore and hind feet—the fore feet, indeed, were almost as human as the fore feet of a frog. It had, moreover, a roundish head, with a projecting forehead and forward-looking eyes, obscured by its lank hair.”

By the way, the later passage is deleted from many editions of The Time Machine; you can find it at the The Gray Man Wikisource. I specially like it because there are some fancy biology thoughts going on there. Here it is an example:

“(…) why a degenerate humanity should not come at last to differentiate into as many species as the descendants of the mud fish who fathered all the land vertebrates.”

And, there is also a macabre and scary view of that distant future, where those rabbit-like men are preyed by giant arthropods:

“I can only describe it by comparing it to a centipede. It stood about three feet high, and had a long segmented body, perhaps thirty feet long, with curiously overlapping greenish-black plates. It seemed to crawl upon a multitude of feet, looping its body as it advanced. Its blunt round head with a polygonal arrangement of black eye spots, carried two flexible, writhing, horn-like antennae.”

Sorry, This Is Not a Love Story

Putting science aside for a moment, let me go into some gossip.

The Time Traveler had a female eloi companion, Weena, following him everywhere, till she dies in a forest fire during a morlock attack. (Sorry, I should have alerted about the spoiler.)

I discovered that there has been since ever some discussion about the nature of their relationship. In the movies, for instance, there was a mandatory romance going on between them. The 2002 version even took the liberty of adding a happily ever after ending!

But nothing could be farther from the novel. As for the Time Traveler, Weena was just a 1.20 m tall child:

“The creature’s friendliness affected me exactly as a child’s might have done. We passed each other flowers, and she kissed my hands. I did the same to hers. (…) She was exactly like a child. (…) taking Weena like a child upon my shoulder…”

Though sometimes narrative could go more Lewis-Carroll style:

“I returned to the welcome and the caresses of little Weena. (…) I took her in my arms and talked to her and caressed her. (…) Then I remember Weena kissing my hands and ears …”

Time Machine: Do It Yourself

Curious enough, the machine from the novel’s title isn’t even important on itself. Wells doesn’t attempt at describing it or giving any hint on how it would work. We just know that, right before his first trip, the Time Traveler tells

“I gave it a last tap, tried all the screws again, put one more drop of oil on the quartz rod, and sat myself in the saddle.”

And later he regrets his oversight when preparing for the trip:

“I had come without arms, without medicine, without anything to smoke—at times I missed tobacco frightfully—even without enough matches. If I had only thought of a Kodak!”

I can’t avoid smiling every time I read this deliciously naive description.

(And, yes, Kodak cameras were around since 1888.)

But we can already smell the modernity that was approaching. We learn from the pre-Einsteinian time traveler that

“There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the later…”

Yes, Mr. Wells, you got that right.


Categories: Culture

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1 reply


  1. Missing Figures in Science: The Synthesizer – Much Bigger Outside

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