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Space cowboy

For more than 50 years, UConn physics professor Ronald Mallett had a secret. Now that it's out, we may be one step closer to traveling back in time.
By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 14, 2008

PERSONAL QUEST Since losing his father 53 years ago, Mallett has devoted his life to building a time machine in order to revisit him. Today, in a Connecticut laboratory, he’s developed basic equations and a prototypical experiment that may prove it’s possible.

The road not yet traveled: The science of time travel. By Mike Miliard.
Dr. Ronald L. Mallett was only the 79th African-American to earn a doctorate in physics. But being black wasn’t the only potentially complicating factor he faced on the road to becoming a tenured theoretical physicist at the University of Connecticut. 

Another was his reason for choosing his vocation, one he kept hidden for years, fearful that its discovery would (at best) incite howls of derision from his colleagues, or (at worst) amount to professional suicide.

Ronald Mallett wanted to build a time machine.

Traveling into the future is easy. Anyone familiar with Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity knows a moving clock ticks slower than a stationary one. So it’s simple, really: all you have to do is build a spaceship that moves nearly as fast as the speed of light, pump it with enough fuel for a long — long, long — round-trip voyage, and head for the stars. By the time you return to Earth in, say, five years (as marked by you onboard your light-year-traveling spaceship, of course), you’ll have aged half a decade while everyone and everything else on Earth has aged considerably more.

But who wants to go to the future? (Nowadays, it’s terrifying even to ponder what the headlines will be tomorrow.)

Certainly not Mallett. For more than 50 years, he’s been obsessed with finding a way to return to the past. Specifically, to the Bronx, in 1955. That’s the year his father, Boyd Mallet, died. Mallett’s lifelong mission? To traverse spatiotemporal continuum and warn his dad to take better care of himself. To tell him to kick the two-pack-a-day habit that helped lead to the fatal heart attack he suffered at the age of 33.

The “overwhelming shock” of his father’s death caused Mallett, now 63, to “just disconnect from reality,” he says. So when, at age 10, he started building a jury-rigged jalopy, based on the gyroscopic contraption on the cover of the Classics Illustrated version of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, it might have seemed as if he had gone over the edge.

But the next decades only saw Mallett’s focus on his mission intensify with laser-like precision. He devoured every book on Einstein he could find. He boned up on differential equations and tensor calculus. And by 1973, at Penn State, he’d earned his Ph.D. Moved by the intensely personal nature of his quest, Spike Lee announced this past summer that he’s currently writing a screenplay for a movie — which he’ll direct — based on Mallett’s book, Time Traveler (Thunder’s Mouth, 2006).

On Mallett’s cluttered desk sits a small placard: “If the facts do not conform to the theory, they must be disposed of.” A bit of geek humor. But Mallett knew that there was nothing in the laws of physics that said time travel was impossible. And now his groundbreaking theories about the nature of space-time are about to be borne out in a Connecticut laboratory.

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Related: The road not yet traveled, The Year of the Nerd, Lightning Bolt | Earthly Delights, More more >
  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Science and Technology, Sciences, Physics,  More more >
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