UConn Professor Seeks Funding for Time Machine Feasibility Study "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Ron Mallett remembers the moment time came grinding to a halt for him.
It was the middle of the night May 22, 1955, the night of his parents’ eleventh wedding anniversary. Ron was 10. Until that night he had been a happy child living with his parents and two brothers in the Bronx. His father, Boyd Mallett, was a TV repairman with a gift for electrical ingenuity and reputation for pranks—for his anniversary party that night he had wired the bathroom so music would start suddenly every time the toilet seat was lifted.(Above: Ron Mallett examines an early model of the time travel device he hopes to build.)
Boyd placed a premium on education and would withhold Ron’s weekly allowance until he had successfully passed a series of quizzes. Ron enjoyed these quizzes and worshipped his father.
“For me literally the sun rose and set on him,” Ron says.
That night the sun stopped rising and setting for Boyd. An outwardly healthy and robust appearing man, Boyd had a weak heart and after the anniversary party he died in his sleep.
“It crushed my world. Even now I cannot believe that he died and we’re talking 60 years later,” Ron recalls. “My world in a sense ended with that and I really didn’t care whether I lived or died.”
Ron escaped this depression only when he began to believe that he would see his father again. It wasn’t a delusion exactly, but it was an obsession."Scientific people know very well that time is just a kind of space, and we can move forward and backward in time just as we can move forward and backward in space."
Those were the words that may have saved Mallett’s life. He read them shortly after his father’s death in a Classics Illustrated comic book version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (right). Those words and the story of the time machine were the fuel that launched his life’s dream—to build a time machine and travel into the past to warn his father about his heart condition.
It’s the type of flight of fancy many children have but Mallett’s dream was more intense. Based off the drawing in the comic, he attempted to build a time machine using his father’s old TV equipment, discarded tubes and other pieces of junk. When it didn’t work Mallett remembered the words in the passage referring to “scientific people” and realized that to travel “forward and backward” in time he had to dedicate himself to scientific study. Decades later Mallett is a respected University of Connecticut research professor and theoretical physicist. He’s still working on building that time machine, only now he’s closer then ever to completing it.
In its most basic form, Mallett’s work shows how, theoretically at least, ring lasers can recreate the conditions of a rotating black hole, which has long been theorized to allow for time travel (remember the film Interstellar?). The space and time in the center of these laser rings would be bent allowing a string of subatomic particles such as neutrons arranged so that some point “up” while others point “down,” to represent zeroes or ones, to be sent as a binary message back in time.
(Early versions of these ring lasers are pictured below during a demonstration at a UConn lab.) Mallett regularly visits the UConn lab of his colleague Chandra Roychoudhuri, an experimental laser physicist who is working to design prototype devices based on Mallett’s theories. The physicists are currently seeking $250,000 for the first-step feasibility study of Mallett’s time machine.
Mallett and Roychoudhuri believe that with that funding they can test whether the ring laser is twisting space and can begin work on a laser ring that can twist time. Although, the amount of energy needed to create a laser loop strong enough to twist space is within current technologies, it's possible that the energies required to twist time will require a whole new technological approach. “We’re talking about stellar energies,” Mallett says. However, he believes once the concept is proven, future technologies will be developed. He points out that when Einstein published his famous E=MC2 showing mathematically how matter could be converted into energy—“people thought, ‘While this is theoretically possible but we’ll never be able to do it.’” Then, scientists discovered nuclear chain reactions and the atomic bomb became a reality.Mallett’s autobiography Time Traveler, co-written by Bruce Henderson, opens with a quote from Simon Newcomb, a well-respected 1800s scientist: “Flight by machines heavier than air is impractical…if not utterly impossible.” In person, Mallett is fond of comparing his efforts at building a time machine to humanity’s early attempts at flight. “Until the Wright brothers, people were trying to fly and they were falling and getting killed,” he says.
UConn Professor Seeks Funding for Time Machine Feasibility Study
• • •In the present day, at Mallett’s home in Coventry the clocks are everywhere, a constant reminder of time’s continuous tick and his life's work. There is a signed autograph of Albert Einstein framed with a likeness of the scientist painted by Mallett’s brother Keith Mallett, a well-known artist; on one shelf there are models of the time machine used in the film version of H.G. Well’s “The Time Machine” and the DeLorean time-traveling car made famous in the “Back to the Future" films. In the fridge there is a six-pack of Time Traveler Shandy, a beer made in Vermont.
Mallett has clearly embraced his role as a physicist specializing in time travel and the public has embraced him. He’s been profiled in Rolling Stone Magazine, Wall Street Journal and was one of the subjects of a popular “This American Life” episode on NPR. Filmmaker Spike Lee has also co-written a script based on Mallett’s life that is currently being shopped to studios. But it wasn’t always this way.
When Mallett first hatched upon the idea of building a time machine as a boy, he kept it to himself. “Even at 11, I was careful because I realized that people were already worried about me and if I told them that I wanted to build a time machine, it might not have good consequences for me,” he says.
So Mallett’s obsession with building a time machine remained secret for decades. Ron enlisted in the Air Force and was able to attend college through the GI Bill. After receiving his Ph. D from Penn. State University, Ron moved to Connecticut for a job at United Technologies. It was not the academic job Ron had hoped for but it proved to be a fortuitous setback. While assigned to the Pratt & Whitney division of United Technologies, he worked with lasers, the very narrow, highly concentrated beams of light that would ultimately be at the heart of his theories on time travel.In 1975, he became a professor at UConn. As a black physicist he already had to deal with racism and he feared that revealing his interest in time travel could ruin his academic career. Secretly, he studied the subject; openly, he specialized in black holes, which not incidentally have some important properties when it comes to time and the potential for time travel.
Throughout most of his life, Mallett has been inspired by Einstein’s work. “Einstein said that the river of time could be altered you could do things to change time,” he says. “One of the things that people still don’t realize is that time travel’s gone beyond science fiction now.”
(Above: the signed portrait of Einstein that hangs in Mallett's home office.)
There are two distinct branches of time travel: travel into the past and travel into the future. “Einstein’s work allows for the possibility of both,” Mallett explains. In fact, a form of time travel into the future, known as time dilation, already occurs in our daily lives. In 1905, in his Theory of Special Relativity, Einstein showed that time, long believed to be a constant, was relative and that as a clock moves faster time slows down. Later in 1915, in his Theory of General Relativity, Einstein showed that time was also effected by gravity—the greater the gravitational pull the slower time passes.
In the early 1970s, the special theory was proven when atomic clocks were flown on jet flights and slowed down compared to non-moving clocks at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Of course, it’s not just clocks, everything slows down. “Your heart is a clock, this means it would slow down,” Mallett explains. As a result, Mallett says, traveling in a plane provides a form of time travel into the future; only the distance into the future is so small its non-observable. This is because the time dilation effect depends on speed. Subatomic particles traveling close to the speed of light live 10 to 20 times longer, thereby traveling further into the future.
Einstein's general theory also has everyday consequences. Earlier GPS systems had inaccurate time predictions because they did not take into account that if you put a clock into orbit around the Earth on a GPS satellite, where gravity is much weaker, it will run milliseconds faster than clocks, within cars, on the Earth’s surface.
Mallett wasn’t interested in time travel to the future. He wanted to journey to the past. Over the years mathematical models that theorized time loops could form within a rotating universe or a rotating black hole inspired Mallett. In the late 1990s, after a period of depression brought on by a heart condition, he resumed his time travel studies with renewed vigor. He found that he wasn’t the only physicist looking into a practice that had once seemed firmly rooted in science fiction. Renowned physicist Kip Thorne, a friend of Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, has written about the possibility of time travel through wormholes and Richard Gott at Princeton has considered the possibility of time travel using cosmic strings, a theoretical defect in the fabric of spacetime believed to be left over from the Big Bang.
Both methods, even if proven possible, would be well-beyond human capability, as they would require an ability to travel the cosmos in a manner likely several millennia or more ahead of current technology. But, inspired by these ideas, Mallett began looking for a different method and one that could be produced from Earth.
Mallett realized that Einstein’s work showed that light, in addition to matter, would bend space. Using a concentrated light, a laser, fired in a loop, he ultimately devised equations showing that within a laser loop space and potentially time could be twisted if the laser was powerful enough. He describes the twisting of space by circulating laser light in the equation on the chalkboard below.It is Mallett's most famous equation and his magnum opus but is difficult for nonscientists to comprehend. To help, Mallett uses a simplified visual analogy. He drops a sugar cube inside a cup of coffee and stirs the coffee with a spoon. Just as stirring the coffee forms a whirlpool at the center of the mug that the cube is sucked down, Mallett believes the laser ring will act like the spoon and instead of coffee will twist space and time inside the ring, allowing the particle at its center to travel down a whirlpool through time.
In 2001, Mallett came out of the “time travel closet.” Instead of being renounced as a crackpot as he long feared, he was celebrated both by the public and scientific community. At that time, it appeared Mallet was closer than ever to seeing his father again, but when he stepped away from his equations for a bit, he realized that his elegant theories, even if proven true, still couldn’t reunite him with his father.(Ron, standing, with his mother and father, Dorothy and Boyd Mallett, and baby brother, Jason, at the Bronx Park, 1948.)
Over the years Ron has envisioned what a visit to the past would look like down to the tiniest detail. He sees himself going back to his family’s home in the Bronx and hearing his father’s deep, soft voice once again. He imagines talking with his dad, and slowly explaining his theories of time travel and how he returned to the past, ultimately revealing who he really is.
(Below: Boyd Mallett in the Army during World War II in 1944 before being shipped overseas.) But the peacefulness of this daydream is shattered by one of the classic arguments against time travel—if time travel will one day be invented, how come someone in the future has not traveled back to our time?
As Hawking, a time travel skeptic, famously put it in A Brief History of Time, “If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?” With Mallett’s method, the laser rings would allow for travel back in time only to the point they were invented, as the time twisting would start at the moment the time machine is turned on. “It’s the machine that’s creating this twisting of space and time so you can’t travel back earlier than when the device is turned on,” he says. “Once time travel comes online, our descendants will be able to visit us but we won’t be able to visit our ancestors.”
Even so, Mallett holds a vague, admittedly far-fetched dream of reuniting with his father. Scientists today believe it is probable that there are other forms of life in the universe. Ron says it stands to reason that some of them will be more advanced and if his method for time travel works, alien civilizations could have discovered it long before us. “If their machine has been on let’s say for 10,000 years, once we get to their planet we can use their time machine to go back to our distant past. So maybe our distant past will eventually be opened up to us if we were able to use an extraterrestrial time machine. That’s all hypothesis but it’s not outside the domain of possibility,” he says softly. He adds “I always had this kind of a fantasy that people in the future have connected with this and they say ‘Hey, Mallett was one of the pioneers, why don’t we go back and do something nice for him?’ But that’s just a fantasy.”
His mathematical theories on time travel are based on Einstein's General Theory of Relativity and are far from fantasy. He’s made peace with the realization that even if his time machine works, he won’t see his father again. Yet that doesn’t mean his connection with the man who brought him into the world does not transcend the boundaries of time and space.
“I am what I am because of my father," says Mallett. "The theoretical physicist would not exist without Boyd Mallett, not just because I was born but because of my love for him. I miss him every single day and I think about him every day.”
For more information on Ron Mallett visit: http://www.phys.uconn.edu/~mallett/main/funding.htm. His autobiography Time Traveler: A Scientist's Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality is available from Amazon.com and other major book sellers.
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