Doc Mallett: The Time Of His Life


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The Time Traveler’s Teacher: Photo courtesy of UConn

If space travel is the final frontier, then what is time travel? For Dr. Ronald Lawrence Mallett it is a lifelong labor of love.

Get used to saying the following three names, three great minds ahead of their time, in one sentence: Newton, Einstein and Mallett. Assuredly, amidst the most desirable of dreams has been to go back in time to right a wrong or to go forward in time to discover what fate has in store. Nevertheless, time travel has been amongst the most unlikely of things to happen – until now, that is. Thanks to theoretical physicist, Ronald Lawrence Mallett, who’s taken the earlier work of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein to the next level, time travel may occur in our lifetime.

When Dr. Mallett was 28 years old in 1973, he received his Ph.D from Penn State University. Since 1987, he has been a full professor of physics at the University of Connecticut and is a member of the American Physical Society and the National Society of Black Physicists .

Since 1955, when his Father died at age 33, “Doc” Mallett’s been driven by the desire to go back in time before his Dad’s death, and tell him two things; he loves him, and he should stop smoking cigarettes. Truly one in a trillion, his story is the type of tale Joseph John Campbell wrote about in The Hero of a Thousand Faces. In 2006, he and Bruce Henderson penned Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality [© Thunders Mouth Press]. Recently, he and I had a chance to chat about his life and times.

Father Time

“You were ten years old when your Dad died. His death’s been a major source of inspiration for you since then. My question is two-fold as follows: So do you think he’d believe you if you traveled back in time prior to his passing to warn him to stop smoking? And what would you bring back with you to help convince him it was really you?”

“My father would have to see proof that I traveled back in time. My father was an electronic technician and had a keen curiosity about what was going on in science. So first I would give him a brief explanation about how time travel was possible. Afterwards, I would show him photos of his grown-up family. Finally, I would show him the official certificate of his death which I have. I believe that would really get his attention”.

“You’ve stated that it was the comic book edition of H.G. Wells’ The Time MachineClassics Illustrated #133 1956] along with reading and comprehending Einstein that put you on the path you’ve followed since. When was it that you knew you’d made the correct career choice?”

“Interestingly enough, even though I was interested in Einstein and knew he was a physicist, I was not particularly interested in physics while I was in high school. This was due in part to some very uninspired teaching by the high school science instructor. For me Einstein’s theory of relativity was a means to an end. Initially, I considered becoming an electronic engineer because I thought I would learn techniques to build a time machine.  It was while I was in the US Air Force after high school that I came across the mysteries of quantum mechanics. That was when I decided to become a theoretical physicist”.

“During your dialogue with Chantal Rutter [© Carte Blanche June 20, 2010] you shared with her a story that you didn’t dare tell anyone about your plans to build a time machine. Did you make the decision due to the fact that you were among the few Black physicists in America or because when you did disclose it you wanted to be right on the money about it?”

“My caution about revealing my interest in time travel was due to the conservative nature of the physics community at that time in regard to the whole subject of time travel.  I knew that mentioning that I was trying to understand how to build a time machine could be professional suicide. There were very few black physicists in America, and I wanted to get tenure and rise to the top of the academic ladder, so I kept my mouth shut. I chose an acceptable area of Einstein’s theory of relativity that would allow me to study time travel. To that end black holes became one of my areas of specialization”.

“Speaking about job security, what can you say as regards how the project has been funded to date?”

“Currently, researchers at Penn State University and the University of Connecticut are working with me to develop experiments and acquire the funding that is necessary to verify my theoretical results on the gravitational effects of circulating light beams, which is the basis of my time travel research. However, the threshold amount of funding has neither been received nor achieved. The University of Connecticut Foundation, a nonprofit agency responsible for managing funding, has opened an account for the funding of my time travel research. The official name of the project is the ‘Space-Time Twisting by Light (STL) Project’. All contributions made for this project are tax-deductible”.

Time Chaser

“In the aforementioned discussion with Ms. Rutter, she states; ‘Twisting of the space makes time swirl and twist in the same way. And it is this twisting of time that makes time travel possible’. Is it really that simple?”

“The concept using a circulating beam of laser light to twist space and time is straightforward. However, the theoretical details are quite involved and the experimental implementation of the concept is challenging. Einstein showed that mass and energy are the same thing. The time machine we’ve designed uses light in the form of circulating lasers to warp or loop time. Say you have a cup of coffee and a spoon, the coffee is empty space, and the spoon is the circulating light beam. When you stir the coffee with the spoon, the coffee – or the empty space – gets twisted. Suppose you drop a sugar cube in the coffee. If empty space were twisting, you’d be able to detect it by observing a subatomic particle moving around in the space”.

“In the episode of This American Life entitled My Brilliant Plan: Tragedy Minus Time Equals Happily Ever After [#324 January 26, 2007] you made a profound pronouncement to reporter Josh Gibson; ‘So if gravity can affect time and light can create gravity then light can effect time’, can you elaborate?”

“According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, clocks run different rates in a gravitational field.  This has real practical implications that affected the initial set up the global positioning system (GPS).    It turns out that clocks in the GPS unit of your car, which is at the surface of the earth where gravity is stronger, run at a slower rate than clocks at high altitude such as  those aboard satellites orbiting the Earth. The effects of gravity on time at different altitudes had to be taken into account in order for the GPS system to work. In Einstein’s theory it turns out that not only matter such as the Earth can create gravity but also light.  It is the energy of light that creates gravity.  Consequently, since time is affected by gravity and light can create gravity due to its energy then light can also affect time. That is the core of my research”. 

Mankind’s Mind Over Matter Machine

“So would it be safe to say then that your theory of time travel is the third piece of the time travel puzzle, with the other pieces being Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Einstein’s rule of general relativity in a chronological timeline?”

“My time travel theory could be seen as a culmination of our understanding of gravity first considered by Newton and then understood at a deeper level by Einstein…What I teach students is the importance of realizing that the possibility of time travel rests on solid physics based on the work of Einstein and his special theory of relativity, right in that theory is the possibility of time travel into the future”.

“Your theory of time travel is based upon one of the two theoretical subsets of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – general relativity – as opposed to special relativity. However, does it also take into account the other pillar of physics, quantum?”

“Although my work is based on Einstein’s general theory of relativity, it does not directly take into account quantum  mechanics.  Nevertheless, quantum mechanics could definitely play a role in understanding the consequences of time travel, namely, the so-called Grandfather Paradox. This paradox addresses the question of what could happen if, for example, you went back in time and prevented your grandfather for meeting your grandmother.  In that case, your grandparents would not have your parents and your parents would not have you.  So how could you go back in time to prevent your grandparents from meeting – that is the Grandfather Paradox.  Quantum mechanics offers a way out via the concept of parallel universes.  According to this concept, when you travel back in time you will arrive in a different universe.  In that universe you can do whatever you wanted to and it would not affect the original universe you came from”.

A Stitch In Time

During my study of your research, I find that you often refer to ‘the gap’ between the technological and the theoretical, can you explain?”

“It has often happened that a theoretical prediction in physics has exceeded the technical capabilities of engineers to realize a particular application.  An example of this is the laser. The concept behind the laser was developed by Albert Einstein in 1917.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1962 that technological developments occurred that were capable of realizing a practical laser”.

“If you only had, pardon the pun, the time to give a comeback quotation what would it be in regard to Stephen Hawking’s widely-circulated “chronology protection conjecture” quote: “The laws of physics do not allow the appearance of closed time-like  curves”?

The physical nature of any time machine is such that time travel to the past is only possible from the future to the point at which the time machine was turned on.  Consequently, the fact that we have not seen time traveler’s from the future means that the first time machine has not yet been built”.

“Recently, scientists at the world’s largest physics lab in Geneva claimed they’ve clocked subatomic particles neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. They say it’s something that could cause a rewrite of Einstein’s special theory of relativity and put the equation, energy equals mass times the speed of light squared at risk. Does this report have ramifications regarding your research?”

“It is a misconception that Einstein’s special theory of relativity states that nothing can go faster than the speed of light. In addition, it’s been speculated that subatomic particles, tachyons, theoretically predicted particles that travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, exist and are consistent with Einstein’s theory of relativity. It has also been conjectured that tachyons could be used to send signals back in time. Until recent CERN results have been carefully checked it is too early to draw any conclusions”.

“Do you as a scientist personally prescribe to the clockwork universe theory – the universe is like a clock wound by God, but that it ticks along via the laws of physics, independent of God?”

“The notion of a clockwork universe is a Newtonian concept that is no longer adhered to by the physics community.  Quantum mechanics does not view the universe as clockwork but rather as an interactive process in which we affect the reality that we perceive”.

Time In A Bottle

“Mail service has come a long way from the Pony Express, FedEx, Facsimile, and Email. If and when do you believe mankind will be capable of sending the proverbial ‘Message in the Bottle’ back to the past?”

Sending messages to the past will eventually be possible. How soon depends on adequate fundingWhat people don’t realize is experiments have been done that actually show that this is possible”.

“When most ‘baby boomers’ think of time travel, in addition to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, they talk of the 1960s TV show The Time Tunnel. Do you have yet a ‘date certain’ for your proprietary intellectual property to become a reality?”

“It’s not possible to determine a date for time machines nor how soon humans will be able to travel through time since the development of time travel depends on the success of experiments, technology, breakthroughs and funding. However, I believe that human time travel could happen in this century”.  

“You’ve referred to your time machine as an ‘early warning system’, how so?”

“A time machine would act as an early warning system in the sense that information sent from the future about possible disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. It could lead to steps being taken in the present that would save thousands of lives…Imagine if we could send warnings back to the past of something like 9/11, the number of lives we would save. To me, that is what makes it worth the effort and that’s what I’m hoping to be able to see in my lifetime”.

“Keeping those warnings in mind what about warding off assassinations, like Lincoln, King, the Kennedys, etc.?”

“Potentially it could also be possible to travel back in time to prevent assassinations. I’ve often pondered what race relations in this country might have been like if Lincoln had survived the assassination attempt. Unfortunately, there’s always the possibility of the  technology being used for ill gain as well as good. That’s why it’s important for the public to be aware of the possibility and to address the question of regulation…Once time travel occurs, if someone has altered the past, then everything that we think as being our reality could be an altered reality. So it has to be regulated to make sure we don’t do the wrong thing with it”.

As Time Goes By

“It was announced Spike Lee is going to make a movie, tentatively titled Time Traveler, what say you? And talking about motion pictures, you list your favorite films about time travel on your website, [The Time Machine, Planet of the Apes, Somewhere in Time, Back to the Future, Time Cop, Frequency, The Butterfly Effect and Déjà Vu] do you have any new ones to add?”

“Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, has published my memoir ‘Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality’ and is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The book is both an autobiography and popular science book that describes my personal journey from the death of my father to the development of my work on a time machine based on Einstein’s general theory of relativity. A feature film based on the book to be directed by Spike Lee is currently in development. A recent movie that I’ve enjoyed that creatively uses the concept of time travel is ‘Source Code’.”

“Name something people might be surprised to learn about you, maybe a nickname perhaps?”

“Folks might be surprised to know that in my free time I enjoy playing computer games. I have no nickname, however. I have been referred to by people in passing as ‘that time machine guy’”.

“Fellow physicist and writer, Alan Lightman, in his novel Einstein’s Dreams posits a universe of three time dimensions, possible or not?”

“Physicists have considered the possibility of time having more than one dimension. So far there has been no experimental evidence to show that our universe has more than one dimension of time”.

“Last but not least, Doc, how’s your health leading such a hectic life?”

“As a result of hereditary factors, I do have to take care of my heart.  Fortunately, due to a very satisfying personal life, a stimulating professional career, and superb medical care when needed, my health has been excellent. Thanks so much for your interest in my life and work”.

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