SciTech

Physicist wants to build time machine to see his dad

Theoretical physicist Ronald Mallett poses for a photo as he prepares to pour dry ice into a ring laser in a lab at the University of Connecticut. Mallett says he kept his work on time travel secret for years partly because colleagues might conclude he was a crackpot.
Theoretical physicist Ronald Mallett poses for a photo as he prepares to pour dry ice into a ring laser in a lab at the University of Connecticut. Mallett says he kept his work on time travel secret for years partly because colleagues might conclude he was a crackpot. Bloomberg

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. 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, Ron Mallett immersed himself in the mysteries of time and space, crafting equations derived from the work of Albert Einstein.

This year is 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 said, “and my promise to myself to figure out how to affect time with Einstein’s work as a foundation.”

The number of lectures Mallet gives has doubled because of the Einstein anniversary. He also meets prospective donors to raise the $250,000 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.

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

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 traveled 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 Ph.D. 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.

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.”

His three-story townhouse condominium is 10 minutes from the UConn campus in Storrs. His pension – about 75 percent of his $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 said 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.

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