This story originally appeared in Wired magazine
A Man out of Time
Science fiction is coming to life in one professor’s laboratory.
Professor Ronald Mallet is always late. And, just so you know that physics professors are no different from the rest of us, he has tried that old trick of setting the clock five minutes ahead to fool himself into getting out the door—and it didn’t work for him either.
He won’t have this problem once his time machine is up and running. You read that right. Time. Machine. Mallet, a tenured professor at the University of Connecticut, a man well respected in the field of theoretical physics, is working on a time machine and he’s pretty sure it’s going to work.
Mallet built his first time machine back in 1957, when he was 12 years old. His father had died two years previously, and Mallet, the oldest son, had sunk into a deep depression. “It completely turned my world into a black hole,” he says, “I didn’t care if I lived or died. Everything seemed unimportant.” That all changed when he walked into a local drugstore in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and spotted a copy of HG Wells’s classic, The Time Machine. “I realized that I could go back in time and see my father again,” he says. “I could tell him what was going to happen and maybe change his fate and bring him back to life.”
The scientific aspect of Wells’s story was what inspired Mallet. “The thing that struck me about it is that it was a machine doing the traveling,” he recalls. “All of the time travel stories I had read before were about people getting bumps on their head or hit by lightning.” Mallet, who had learned a bit about electronics by watching his father, a television repairman, immediately set to work. The preteen assembled and wired together various radio receivers, television parts, and pipes—he even included some old car tires to function as landing gear.
The machine’s failure to work did not discourage the young inventor. “I knew I was going to have to learn a lot more in order to succeed,” he recalls. And so Ronald Mallet set about on his life’s work. He joined the army in order to pay for college, and spent all of his spare time reading up on Einstein and other physicists. “I knew I had to learn how to develop the equations so I could learn how to control space and time,” he says. “And the people who know how to do that are physicists.”
Throughout his academic career, Mallet hid his time machine goal from colleagues and even close friends. “I didn’t want to deal with the skepticism,” he explains, “and I knew if I wanted to get tenure and become a full professor, saying that ‘Guess what, I want to build a time machine,’ meant I wouldn’t have lasted even a probationary year.” While keeping his secret, he rose through the ranks, earning his PhD from Penn State in 1973 (one of only 79 African Americans to do so at the time, among 20,000 physicists in the US), achieving tenure in 1980 at the University of Connecticut, and publishing many well received papers on topics like “Symmetry Breaking and the Gravitational Field,” “Position Operators in a (3+1) DeSitter Space, and “The Inverse Einstein-Infeld-Hoffman Problem.” He developed a ‘cover story’ that he was researching black holes, noting that “In the physics community, black holes are considered legitimate crazy, as opposed to time travel, which at that time was considered crazy crazy.” But by studying black holes, which affect time through their strong gravitational force, he was able to keep the dream of seeing his father alive as he worked and began a family.
Mallet’s breakthrough came when he realized he could use light, in the form of a laser, to control time. “Lasers are highly focused beams of light,” he says “And if I used mirrors to get the light going in a loop, this circulating laser beam would cause empty space to become twisted and time would become twisted as well.” You can visually see the happen if you stir a cup of coffee with a spoon. Your spoon is like the light beam that is circulating and it is moving the coffee in the same way the laser would move empty space. If you drop a coffee bean into the cup, it will be dragged around by the coffee just as a time traveler could be dragged along by the twisted space the light beam created. Mallet proposed that he could set up this laser loop and move a neutron through time.
Mallet presented this breakthrough theory in 2002, at the Association for Relativistic Dynamics Third Biennial Conference (party!) at Howard University. At the end of his presentation, he did what he had never done before: he revealed the underlying impetus for his research. “My original motivation for everything—learning math and science, going to college, becoming a physicist—was so I could see my father again,” he told them, while displaying a family photo as his last slide.
Mallet’s theory was accepted by the scientific community, and there were no ramifications from his revelation. Indeed, Bryce DeWitt, a legendary physicist who had worked on the quantum theory of gravity, told Mallet, “Your father would have been proud of you.”
But enjoyment of this success was short-lived. As Mallet began to work with an engineer who could actually build the machine he had theorized, he realized its fatal flaw. “My machine can only carry a time traveler back to the moment the machine was turned on,” he explains, “not one second before.” This means that once the machine is built and turned on, our descendants will be able to visit us, but that we can never visit our ancestors. Mallet would never see his father again. “It was a sad day,” he recalls, “But I have realized that even though I will never see him again, he left a legacy—he inspired me to do something that will influence mankind, and I think that he would have been proud of what I was able to achieve.”
Currently Mallet is in the fundraising stage in order to be able to build his machine, in addition to his duties as a researcher and classroom professor. He is a proud spokesperson for the fact that science fiction can, in fact, become reality, citing numerous instances where it has, from Star Trek communicators (cell phones!) to his own work, which connects to some of his favorite movies, Back to the Future, and Frequency. “I want the larger public to know that there is a real possibility of time travel,” he says. “It has been 100 years since Einstein developed his theory and yet the general public is still not aware that soon we will be sending things into the future and possibly the past.” And for this real-life Marty McFly, that is much more important than getting anywhere on time.
For more on Ronald Mallet’s work and life, read his autobiography, Time Traveler, from Thunder’s Mouth Press.