Physicist dedicated to building a time machine

Theoretical physicist Ronald Mallett pours dry ice into a ring laser at a laboratory at the University of Connecticut. ...
Tom Morone/Bloomberg

Theoretical physicist Ronald Mallett pours dry ice into a ring laser at a laboratory at the University of Connecticut. Mallett has devoted his research to time travel.

The hour is late. His scientific papers were published years ago, filled with equations wrought by the energies of a younger man. But at 69, theoretical physicist Ron Mallett still goes to work every day to build a time machine based on his most elegant construct: an equation that will put him in touch with his father.

Boyd Mallett died when Ron was 10. Like Telemachus out for Odysseus, he vowed as a boy to sail back through time in a device to warn the older Mallett of the heart attack that would take his life on the night of his 11th wedding anniversary.

A University of Connecticut research professor who for years taught in the classroom, Mallett immersed himself in the mysteries of time and space, crafting equations derived from the work of Albert Einstein.

Dorothy and Boyd Mallett with Ron on the left and his younger brother, James, on the right, at the Bronx Park in 1948.

Dorothy and Boyd Mallett with Ron on the left and his younger brother, James, on the right, at the Bronx Park in 1948.

This year is a milestone for both his heroes: the 100th anniversary of Einstein's general theory of relativity that made time travel a serious topic among today's theoreticians and the 60th anniversary of his father's death.

"My whole existence, who I am, is due to the death of my father," Mallett says, "and my promise to myself to figure out how to affect time with Einstein's work as a foundation."

He is six feet tall, a fit and genial soul. A thin moustache lines his upper lip. He has a deep chin and high receding forehead, at its base two thick eyebrows like caterpillars that bend up when he smiles. He wears dark suits and has fun with his ties, one emblazoned many times over with Einstein's famous equation, E=MC (squared).

The 2000 film Frequency dealt with a man using a ham radio and localised electro-temporal spatial conditions to contact ...
New Line Cinema

The 2000 film Frequency dealt with a man using a ham radio and localised electro-temporal spatial conditions to contact his deceased father 30 years in the past.

The number of lectures Mallet gives has doubled because of the Einstein anniversary. He also meets prospective donors to raise the US$250,000 (NZ$330,000)  to cover the first-step feasibility study for a device he's determined to build. Recently, he made one of his regular visits to the UConn lab of colleague Chandra Roychoudhuri, an experimental laser physicist who is designing prototype devices based on Mallett's theories. Their current model is a series of stacked ring lasers, each glowing-green ring circulating at its level around a glass tube, the whole stack theoretically twisting the space inside.

The two talk about their latest effort to find a lab with the equipment necessary to carry out the space-twisting experiments. Theirs is a rarefied scientific language but because of their teaching backgrounds, they often reach for simple metaphors to make their ideas easier to understand.

"Put your finger in a pond and it causes a ripple," says Roychoudhuri as he explains the wavelike behaviour of the neutron.

Mallett's equation was published in 2000 in the first of his two breakthrough scientific papers. It begins with the Greek letter omega and describes how a neutron can be moved or dragged because the space it occupies is being twisted by laser light.

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Einstein connected space and time. If space can be twisted then so can time, twisted and bent back on itself to form loops. No longer linear, time becomes a circular highway that can be travelled in both directions, to the past and future.

Think of a cup of coffee, Mallett says. The coffee represents empty space. The spoon is the laser stirring that space. Drop a coffee bean (neutron) into the cup and it swirls and swirls in the coffee vortex, pulled around by a process known to scientists as frame-dragging. Enough intense swirling, space twists and time twists and loops back on itself.

Secret Work

When he received his doctorate in 1973, Mallett was one of only 79 black PhD physicists among about 20,000 in the United States, he says. While he detects more tolerance in the profession now, the discrimination - the idea that a black man can't be this smart - has not disappeared.

Mallett says he kept his work on time travel secret for years partly because colleagues would conclude he was a crackpot unfit for tenure. If he worked openly and with others, he also worried white physicists would get all the credit.

"I'm afraid that's how it would work," Mallett says.

He built his first time machine in the basement of the Altoona, Pennsylvania, home where his mother moved him and three younger siblings from the Bronx after their father's death plunged the family into poverty. He was 11 and had just read The Time Machine by HG Wells. The odds and ends he slapped together didn't work. He knew he would need the science.

He was miserable much of the time growing up, depressed and isolated. He was an average student. Electronics, English and math were the exceptions.

Mallett graduated from high school and signed up for US Air Force training, figuring the GI Bill was his only way to college. In 1963, he was assigned as a computer technician for Strategic Air Command at Lockbourne Air Force Base outside Columbus, Ohio. He took the night shift so he could have time alone to read and study physics. He also devoured the popular television science fiction of the day, Twilight Zone and Star Trek.

After four years in the Air Force, he went to college at the Altoona campus of Penn State University. The year was 1966. Seven years later, he had earned his doctorate and was hired by United Technologies in Hartford, Connecticut. He worked there two years and learned about lasers.

In 2001, upon the publication of his first paper on twisting space, he gave a lecture at the University of Michigan and only then, in his words, "came out of the closet" as a time- travel devotee. He's in good company: Physicists including Kip Thorne from the California Institute of Technology have studied time-twisting potential.

Interviews with prestigious science journals followed for Mallett. In 2006, he published an autobiography, Time Traveler, that caught the eye of director Spike Lee, who bought the rights. A script is being shopped around, Mallett says.

He's been married and divorced twice and is the father of two stepchildren. He describes his job as "a calling," conceding that his work made a successful family life difficult.

Three years ago, Mallett married Terry, who teaches English as a second language to high school students. His three-story townhouse condominium is 10 minutes from the UConn campus in Storrs. His pension - about 75 per cent of his US$105,000 salary when teaching - combined with Social Security makes it possible for him to carry on.

On the bottom floor of his condo is his office, the windows opening to a running brook. A photo of Marilyn Monroe hangs on a wall. A bust of Beethoven sits on a file cabinet on the opposite wall.

"We are like composers," Mallett says of theoretical physicists, assuring a visitor he'll be composing to the end, dreaming of seeing his dad, going over calculations again and again on his deathbed just like that other man in his life.

 - The Washington Post


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