On 10 March 2010, I gave a talk covering the big picture to the IAA. I dealt with huge expanses of time from the distant past to the far future. One item I skipped over was the first scientifically informed look at the far future of our planet. That was by HG Wells in his 1895 masterpiece The Time Machine.
Most people are familar with the basic story from the two film adaptations: a lone and unnamed scientist invents and builds a time machine and travels thousands of years into the future. He discovers that by this time humanity has evolved into two species, the fey and feckless Eloi and the Morlocks, ape-like subterranean technocrats with anthropophagous habits. It is an unforgettable mix of horror, adventure and social comment.
The movies omit the book’s final section when the Time Traveller goes as far into the future as he dares, moving far beyond humanity’s extinction. The journey ends on a desolate beach about 30 million years from now where the protagonist watches a blobby sea creature (implied to be the among the last animal life on Earth) flop around under the light of a vast, cool unsetting red Sun.
It is a bleak view of the planet’s destiny (memorably painted by artist Les Edwards) but based on accurate Victorian science. It was a couple of decades later before we understood the Sun’s nuclear power source, Wells and his contemporaries believed that the Sun was gradually cooling. Now we know the sun is getting warmer (its luminousity increases about 10% every billion years) and our world will end in fire rather than by ice. In Wells’ vision, the Earth has become tidally locked to the Sun, eternally keeping one face towards it. In reality this will take many billions of years to happen.
Ever since Wells, bleak views of the distant future have been rather a speciality of British science fiction (see Olaf Stapleton, Brian Aldiss and Stephen Baxter), contrasting with the more optimistic scenarios of American science fiction.
Anyway we have plently of time left to go out and spread through the Cosmos!