Study Guide

The Time Machine Science

By H.G. Wells


Chapter 1
The Dinner Guests

"It sounds plausible enough to-night," said the Medical Man; "but wait until to-morrow. Wait for the commonsense of the morning." (1.73)

Once again, the characters in <em>The Time Machine</em> set up an opposition: on one side is some amazing scientific discovery; on the other side is common sense, ideas that are "almost universally accepted." The Medical Man is not outright dismissing science here, but he is telling us to be cautious. What's curious about that is that the Medical Man is also in a scientific profession (more so than the Provincial Mayor, at least). So maybe his caution is merely scientific skepticism rather than a disbelief in science. Which do you think it is?

The Time Traveller

"I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted." (1.2)

The Time Traveller starts his discussion by noting that everyone else is wrong. This is kind of snotty on one hand, but on the other hand it's sometimes helpful to ask if something is true or only seems true. (For another example of this, think of Copernicus and his argument that the earth revolves around the sun, even though everyone else thought it was the other way around.)

Chapter 3

The unpleasant sensations of the start were less poignant now. They merged at last into a kind of hysterical exhilaration. [...] so with a kind of madness growing upon me, I flung myself into futurity. (3.5)

Many people think of science as not involving feelings, and they may be mostly right. But check out the Time Traveller: he often describes himself as someone with a great deal of feeling. (Check out "Themes: Fear" for more of that.) In this passage his feelings don't seem in opposition to his scientific experiment – the feelings are part of it. (Which makes some sense: he wouldn't be doing experiments with time travel if he weren't passionate about the subject.)

Chapter 4

As I stood there in the gathering dark I thought that in this simple explanation I had mastered the problem of the world – mastered the whole secret of these delicious people. [...] Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough – as most wrong theories are! (4.32)

The Time Traveller says something like this a few times (check 4.20 for another). Rather than make him look foolish, we think this actually shows him to be a good scientist. To do science right, you've got to be cool with being wrong once in a while. In fact, being wrong may help you find your way to the right answer. Here the Time Traveller is showing us how science is done.

Chapter 5

But my mind was already in revolution; my guesses and impressions were slipping and sliding to a new adjustment. [...] And very vaguely there came a suggestion towards the solution of the economic problem that had puzzled me. (5.35)

A large part of the book is the Time Traveller's attempt to puzzle out what the future is like. In many Hollywood disaster movies, a scientist will come on just to give an answer. <em>The Time Machine</em> isn't just interested in the answer, but also in the process of coming up with it. So we get a lot of sequences, like this one, where the Time Traveller is thinking and groping his way toward the truth.

. . . I discovered, from the flaring of my matches, that a steady current of air set down the shafts. Further, I threw a scrap of paper into the throat of one, and, instead of fluttering slowly down, it was at once sucked swiftly out of sight. (5.16)

The Time Traveller doesn't do a lot of what we would consider experimenting in the future, but here he does, in order to determine whether the wells are sucking air down.

The Time Traveller

"Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all." (5.14)

Here the Time Traveller is reminding himself to think through things scientifically – to collect data and then come up with a theory. (Sherlock Holmes has a famous line about this: "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.")  Even the Time Traveller, who is a pretty good scientist most of the time, needs to remind himself that this is how a scientist acts. In other words, science is hard work – it doesn't come naturally.

Chapter 6

Presently the walls fell away from me, and I came to a large open space, and striking another match, saw that I had entered a vast arched cavern, which stretched into utter darkness beyond the range of my light. The view I had of it was as much as one could see in the burning of a match. (6.8)

Wells wrote an essay in which he compares science to a match. Here we see that comparison being made into a part of the narrative: no matter how much the Time Traveller figures out, there always seems to be something more that he can't see.

Chapter 7

I tried to look at the thing in a scientific spirit. [..] And there was Weena dancing at my side! (7.14)

Here the Time Traveller is wrestling with his realization that the Morlocks eat the Eloi. From a scientific point of view, that's the end of the story: animals eat other animals, and that's the way it is. But the Time Traveller has some difficulty with that notion. He's trying to be scientific and not be bothered by the idea that Weena is going to be eaten, but he <em>is</em> bothered by it. This is another scene where we see how hard it is to suppress one's emotions in the pursuit of science. It's like when you watch a nature show: one episode will be about the deer and you root for the deer, and the next episode will be about wolves and you root for the wolves. The scientific point of view would be not to root for either side, but rather to see both sides as part of the same system.

Chapter 10

I was surprised to find it had been carefully oiled and cleaned. I have suspected since that the Morlocks had even partially taken it to pieces while trying in their dim way to grasp its purpose. (10.10)

Up until this point, the Time Traveller had assumed the Morlocks weren't much smarter than the Eloi. But the Morlocks tried to understand his machine. Are they smarter than he thought they were? Do the Morlocks have science? Or do they just understand machines but not the science behind them?

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