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Could it really be possible to revisit the past? That's a question we've probably all wondered about, but Ron Mallett thinks the answer is yes — and he's spent much of his career trying to proving it. This October 2003 feature, titled "Man Out of Time," profiles the UConn professor and theoretical physicist's attempts to circumvent the rules of time and space as we know them, and to build a literal time machine.

This article is being posted to the web in August 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration. 


Man Out of Time

UConn professor Ron Mallett believes he can travel through time. Won't you come along?

By Patricia Grandjean • Photography by J. Misencik

Freud may have thought us more preoccupied with sex, death and flying, but surely one of mankind’s most persistent—even primal—fantasies is the desire to travel through time. Who among us has never daydreamed about meeting our parents in their childhood or witnessing a Civil War battle firsthand, wished we could change an event in history or rectify a mistake in our own lives, perhaps even travel into the future a century or two and see what the world will be like for our great-great-great-grandchildren?

Certainly, the theme has been a bottomless well of pop-culture inspiration. The universal touchstone of time-travel fiction is, of course, H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine (of which Wells’ film-directing great-grandson Simon shot a 2002 update), but the premise goes back at least as far as utopian literature—Samuel Madden’s 1733 opus Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, in which an angel reveals a document from 1998—and possibly, even to cave drawings. Next month, Hollywood will release the latest in a long line of time-travel-related action-adventures, Timeline, based on Michael Crichton’s 1999 novel of a group of archaeology students who travel back to medieval France to rescue their professor.

Up until now, all time-travel stories were fiction. That may soon change. Submitted for your approval, “Twilight Zone”-style: one Ronald L. Mallett, 58, professor of physics at the University of Connecticut and specialist in general relativity and gravitation, who’s on the verge of designing and constructing the world’s first time machine.

His work has yet to earn him much special attention in the United States—though he’s made occasional appearances in domestic science journals and consumer magazines—but the larger world is starting to buzz, particularly on the Internet. When New Scientist (the international equivalent of Scientific American) did a cover story on him last year, Mallett says his e-mail “lit up” with interview requests from all over—Australia, Germany, Austria, Ireland. But the really big offer came from British documentary filmmaker Ben Bowie, who set about making an hour-long TV documentary on Mallett for the BBC, also featuring Simon Wells and Oxford University’s renowned quantum theorist David Deutsch. The Learning Channel (TLC) plans to broadcast the show stateside this fall.

“I’ve never had a reaction to any film like I got to this one,” says Bowie, whose previous work includes a documentary on the collapse of the World Trade Center (he’s currently doing a film on the Wright Brothers). “Viewers were very excited; it struck a chord. If you ask me, time travel is one of the most fantastic ideas ever— right up there with ‘How to Become Immortal.’ It was the hardest film I ever made because it’s such a technical subject, but when you’ve got someone as lovely as Ron—who’s clever and bright and engaging, whose character and ideas are equally strong—it was like all my Christmas days strung together to work on this.”

The stereotype about scientists is that they’re as aloof and inscrutable as their research, more able to relate to theorems than people. Ben Bowie is right, however—Ron Mallett is about as big an exception as he can be, a genial, tireless pitchman not only for his own ideas, but for science in general. He hops from high school to high school preaching the gospel, to wit, “Science gives you a power no other discipline can give you. You can change reality. I tell students the struggle of the work, so they get a real feeling for the challenge. But I also let them know, though I get paid by the university, I’d do what I do for nothing.”

One of his particular passions is encouraging the classically underrepresented student populations of women and minorities to enter the sciences; among other initiatives, he’s served as faculty adviser to UConn’s program for minority students in engineering. And he’s far from indifferent to the inspiration his own growing fame may give his peers, citing a 2002 piece by Village Voice writer Eric Baard, “Brothers to Another Planet,” which featured him along with Hayden Planetarium director Neil Tyson. "Baard mentioned an online science forum where they were discussing my work, and someone had posted, ‘This guy is a NIGGER! Go look at his Web page!”’ Mallett says. “But then, someone else replied, ‘Maybe it’s time we had a black Einstein.”’

He claims to have a dark side to his personality, noting as somewhat tongue-in-cheek evidence his skill at playing some of Chopin’s “simpler” piano preludes—“only those in a minor key.” Visitors to his home office in Manchester, a climate-controlled nook called “The Hermitage” (part of a rambling 1860 Victorian he shares with his wife, Deborah, an interior designer), see greater evidence of both his scholarly and playful sides. Volumes concerning mathematician Werner Heisenberg and physicist Erwin Schrodinger share bookshelves with photos of Marilyn Monroe and a small collection of videos/DVDs, mostly favorite time-travel flicks: the Back to the Future trilogy, Timecop (with Jean-Claude Van Damme) and the original 1960 version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (starring Rod Taylor). But sitting quietly nearby is Mallett’s lovingly handmade model of Wells’ fictional machine, a project that took three months to complete. It’s this mini-icon that signifies just how strongly his professional goals have also been fueled by personal tragedy.

In 1955, when Mallett was 10 years old, his father Boyd died ofa sudden massive heart attack. A New York City-based electronic technician who became “TV repairman to the stars”—Ron still has Boyd’s signed photos from customers like Walter Matthau, Jackie Cooper and Broadway composer Richard Adler—Boyd, his son says, “was just a larger-than-life figure. He worked two jobs, loved to party and was a two-pack-a-day smoker. I thought the sun rose and set on him. When he died, the shock was overwhelming. I went from being a happy little kid to a pretty depressed little kid.”

Science fiction became his favorite form of escape. Within six months, Ron discovered Wells’ book, and a new mission. “What

caught my imagination was the fact that there was a machine. It was the first story regarding time travel that involved a mechanism in control, and that was very important because I felt my life had gone out of control. I fantasized about building a machine in which I could go back in time and warn my father about what would happen to him, maybe change history. That goal helped me stabilize my life.”

Though Mallett also developed an early fascination with Einstein’s life, he loathed high school physics. “This is the last thing I thought I’d become," he says, laughing. He intended, instead, to go his father one better and become an electrical engineer.

Lacking the money for college, he joined the Air Force in 1962 and enrolled in the Strategic Air Command’s computer school, which involved a year’s training in electronics. He also spent whatever spare time he had taking correspondence courses. One such course introduced him to quantum theory. “That’s what finally got me into physics, at 18,” Mallett says. “I saw Schrodinger’s wave equation and fell in love with the artistic beauty of it, even before I knew what it meant. I wanted to be one of those people who put together an expression that could explain the world."

Though he never lost his passion for time travel, he kept it to himself all through his Ph.D. studies at The Pennsylvania State University (he earned his degree in 1973), a later position with United Technologies (working with lasers), and even his formative years at UConn, believing that if he voiced his obsession to his peers, “it would be professional suicide.” But in the late 1990s, he began to toy with the idea of writing a popular book on the subject, and saw that “many, many serious papers” by younger colleagues were finally appearing in scientific journals: “I knew I could come out of my time-travel closet." While on leave of absence from UConn in 1999 (to deal with a heart condition), Mallett undertook his first formulation of serious research all his own.

***

Though it generally has been considered a practical improbability, by now many “name” physicists have tinkered, conceptually, with the notion of time travel. Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity are typically the springboard, in particular his General Theory of Relativity, formulated in 1915.

Einstein’s notion was that space and time are interlinked in a single, flexible framework called “space-time.” If you think of the universe as a rubber sheet (or better still, a viscous, buoyant fluid), you’ll note that if you place something heavy on it, the substance bends and becomes distorted, and anything else placed near it rolls into the heavy mass. Call this effect “gravity,” or, as Einstein defined it, a curvature of space and time. The larger the mass, the greater the effect.

Now, if you were to start a large mass spinning or twisting in space (like a planet in rotation), its gravitational field would whip space and time around like a spoon stirring a cup of coffee. The faster and stronger the movement, the greater the distortion. Presumably, space-time could eventually become so twisted that closed time loops would be created—that is, rather than running in a straight line from past to future, time would be bent into a ring. If you could somehow travel along the loop, you’d return to its starting point (or possibly, to an event in the past).

"I think time travel will free us, give us the feeling that the mistakes we've made can be corrected," Mallett says. "It's a feeling we don't have as a people now."

Mallett has given Einstein’s theory a down- to-Earth twist. During his tenure at United Technologies, he became aware of a device called a ring laser, a narrow beam of high- energy light projected into—and deflected by—a mirror-paneled cylinder to form a continuously circulating loop of light.

“What physics hasn’t studied all that much,” he says, “is that light can create gravity. Light has no mass, but it has energy— anyone who’s ever felt the sun on their face knows this—therefore, it has equivalent behavior with mass, That energy is what can create gravity. So, I decided to examine the kind of gravitational field this ring laser could produce. Could it create conditions like rotating matter does, that in fact would lead to closed loops in time?” Applying his notion to Einstein’s equations, he found that if you circulate light at a high enough intensity (and at less than snail’s-pace speed), you could indeed intensify the gravitational field within the cylinder and twist space-time so that you could create the same kind of closed time loops that exist in space.

His first professional opportunity to discuss his work came in the summer of 2002, at a talk for the International Association of Relativistic Dynamics in Washington, D.C. “I was excited, because I knew the big names in relativity would be there, but also scared. There was one top expert in quantum theory there, Bryce DeWitt, who’s known for

being kind of curmudgeonly. I thought I was in for it. At the end of my technical talk, I spent some time telling the audience about my background, the personal reasons for my research. When I was done, DeWitt stood up and said, ‘Well, I don’t know if you’ll ever get to see your father again. But he would have been proud of you.’”

Right now, Ron Mallett doesn’t need to time travel to know what his future holds. The paper he delivered in front of the IARD has been published in the September 2003 issue of the journal Foundations of Physics— which means it’s reaching a wider scientific community, “some of whom are my ideological competitors,” he says. “My guess is they are not all going to stand up and cheer.”

But his research has a staunch supporter in William Stwalley, head of UConn’s physics department. “General relativity is one of the fundamental breakthroughs in theory in the 20th century, and it’s poorly tested,” Stwalley observes. “Ron’s work offers the opportunity to test it in the laboratory, rather than looking for changes in the motion of Mercury around the sun—or something equally ‘out there.’”

In collaboration with UConn faculty colleague Chandra Roychoudhuri—an expert in photonics (the science and technology of controlling the flow of light)—Mallett is actually preparing for a series of such lab demonstrations. This past spring and summer, he undertook the wearying process of applying for a provisional U.S. government patent, which was granted in August. “You can’t just ‘patent a time machine,”’ he says. “You have to have a practical application for your invention—we see this as a new form of communication device.”

Once their model of an actual time machine is in place, the first test will be to send informational signals microseconds into the past. “That’s much easier to achieve and control than sending solid matter,” Mallett says.

There are those theorists—Stephen Hawking is a notable example— who believe that time travel into the past is impossible, prevented by the laws of nature. Hawking suggests that because it would unravel the historical fabric of cause and effect, introducing a number of vexing paradoxes (as a result of mankind either willfully or inadvertently changing things), nature will conspire to make any time machine fail—pointing to previous theoretical demonstrations of such machines in which they have typically blown up or shut down. “But I think that his idea gives nature too much credit for controlling and manipulating things,” Mallett says. “It depends on the notion that the universe

keeps its own order. I believe that nature is interesting, but not especially smart."

In any case, theorists agree that there’s a very big gap between making information bytes travel in time and making people do so. "It’s difficult to build something large enough that people could go in and out of," Stwalley notes. Some naysayers haw always maintained that because of the chaos of the physical process of time travel—the twisting and churning of space under the crushing force of gravity—any organic matter would only arrive in the past as mincemeat.

And using Mallett's method, it’s clear that you couldn’t travel farther back into the past than the moment he first activates his machine (because before that, the necessary time loops don't exist)—which means, sadly enough, that Mallett's childhood dream of meeting and warning his young father is pretty much out of his reach.

[PULL QUOTE] It may not be a very realistic look at the actual process, but this movie "time machine" serves as an inspiration for Mallett.

Whatever the challenges, Mallett is confident they will be dealt with soon enough to make the 21st century the era of time travel. That may sound crazily optimistic, but in this centennial year of airplane flight, it’s useful to remember how outlandish the notion of human flight once seemed. “The Wright Brothers' demonstration was just a few hundred yards; less than 50 years later we had jet travel," Mallett notes. “The technology skyrocketed. The same thing will happen here."

You may wonder, to what end? Perhaps the ultimate significance of a time-traveling world is that it will become one in which future generations live without regret—or at least, don’t live with it long. "I think time travel will free us, give us the feeling that the mistakes we've made can be corrected," Mallett says. "It's a feeling we don’t have as a people. Our attitude is, ‘That’s the way it is, and what can we do?’ Instead, we’ll say, ‘Let’s try to get this right.' It’ll give us a whole different feeling about life’s possibilities."