Pessimism and a false scientific orthodoxy of the 1890s

H. G. Wells in 1931, remembering the way that a false scientific consensus be-numbed and hobbled the optimism of the late Victorians and early Edwardians, and indeed the world…

“… the geologists and astronomers of that time told us dreadful lies about the “inevitable” freezing up of the world — and of life and mankind with it. There was no escape it seemed. The whole game of life would be over in a million years or less. They impressed this upon us with the full weight of their authority, while now Sir James Jeans in his smiling [book] Universe Around Us waves us on to millions of millions of years. Given as much as that man will be able to do anything and go anywhere, and the only trace of pessimism left in the human prospect today is a faint flavour of regret that one was born so soon.”

This is from his 1931 preface to a new edition of his famous book The Time Machine (1895). Wells refers to the claim that the Sun only had a limited store of material to burn, and must inevitably cool as it used this up before a million years had gone by — and with it the Earth was also forever cooling.

Here is the Wells of 1894, noting the consensus of the day…

“On the supposition, accepted by all scientific men, that the earth is undergoing a steady process of cooling …” (“Another Basis for Life”, Saturday Review, 22nd December 1894).

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