by Cesca Janece Waterfield
When Ronald Mallet’s father died of a sudden heart attack, the 10-year-old lost his best friend. The boy plunged into sadness, and found escape in the pages of science fiction books. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine set sail his greatest ferry of escape when he considered that a time machine could allow him to save his father’s life.
So far, his tale reads like a theatrical trailer. But what followed – years of study and dedication to his goals – is the true story of a remarkable man and scientist, who has presented his theories and technical specs for time travel to the world’s leading physicists. He’s been profiled by CNN, The History Channel and more. Filmmaker Spike Lee recently bought the rights to bring Dr. Mallet’s story to the big screen.
Ronald’s road to education may have seemed as improbable as time travel: Born in Pennsylvania and raised in the Bronx, he was a first-rate student but poor, one of four children raised by a single mother. So Ronald enlisted in the Air Force, where he studied electronics, and read everything he could by Albert Einstein. He won a scholarship to Pennsylvania State University, and in 1973, earned his doctorate in Physics, the 79th African American to earn a Ph. D. in the subject.
Today, Dr. Mallett is a professor of physics at University of Connecticut, where he’s taught since 1975. He is a member of both the American Physical Society and the National Society of Black Physicists. His research interests include general relativity, quantum gravity, and time travel. His brother is artist Keith Mallett.
For many of us, your theories are exciting, but very complex. Can you put them in plain words?
It’s important for people to realize that even though the subject of time travel sounds like science fiction, the modern study of it is really rooted in Einstein’s work. Einstein showed us the way it can happen. The theories are [first,] the special theory of relativity, which has to do with the speed of light. [It suggests] The faster an object moves, the more time will slow down for that clock. By clock, he meant anything that has rhythm, for example your heart rate. That would slow down, you see.
There was a very important experiment that was done in 1971 with two atomic clocks, the most precise time keeping mechanisms that we have. One was kept at rest in the Naval Observatory, and the other clock was put on an ordinary passenger jet and flown around the world at the speed of sound. When they brought the passenger jet back and compared the clocks, what they found is that the clock on the passenger jet had actually lost time. This means that the heart rate of the people on board had slowed down. For the passengers and everything on board, time had slowed down. The effect was very small. But the effect depends on speed, so the faster you go, the more this effect will occur. When we develop rockets that can go very fast, close to the speed of light, the effect will become so exaggerated that when astronauts come back from space, for them, only a few years will have elapsed, but they will find that actually decades have passed here on earth. They literally could come back and find that they are younger than their children, as weird as that sounds. [laughs] We know this effect is real, because we already see it on a small scale. This is time travel to the future.
Time travel to the past depends on Einstein’s second theory, the general theory of relativity. We can think of the special theory as saying that time is affected by speed. Einstein’s general theory of relativity has found that time is affected by gravity. What he found specifically is that the stronger gravity is, the more time will slow down.
My work is based on the effect of gravity on time. That’s an important key. If gravity can affect time, and if light can create gravity, than what can light do? Affect time. That’s the key to my work, to use the gravity of light to affect time. What I’ve been able to show is that by getting light to circulate, you can actually affect space and time. You can actually get light to circulate a number of ways. The particular light that I’m interested in is laser light.
How did your father inspire your life’s work?
My father was a television repairman. I loved my father very deeply. The sun rose and set on him. He spent a lot of time with all of us. He worked very hard and was good at what he did. But he still had time for us. He was always trying to explain things to me. He did things like take us to the park, to museums, and it was just wonderful. He looked like a very happy, robust person. What we didn’t know was how weak his heart was. He died totally unexpectedly of a massive heart attack. It shattered my world. I went into a depression as a result of that. I really didn’t want to live. I didn’t care about anything. But I loved to read. He gave me that. About a year after he died, I came across H.G. Wells’ book The Time Machine. That changed everything for me because I had this inspiration, if I could build a time machine, I could go back and see him again and maybe save his life. It was my secret goal. I knew already that people were worried about me. I thought that if I told them I wanted to build a time machine, they would think I really had gone over the edge. So I kept it to myself, even though I was 11. That helped me, my secret. When I was around 12, I came across this book that was about this genius Einstein, who actually died the same year my father died, in 1955. Einstein said that time was not something that just flowed independently of us, but that we could actually change time. I knew that if I could understand Einstein, that eventually I could use that to build a time machine. Einstein became my second inspiration. Eventually, I knew I would have to go into physics.
Even after getting your teaching position at University of Connecticut, you remained cautious about discussing some of your theories. Why?
Time travel was something that was considered to be something so far on the fringes, it wasn’t talked about openly. What I had to do was use a cover story. The cover story that I used – and this was the basis for my career – was the study of black holes. Even though black holes are strange objects, they are a legitimate [subject of study.] A black hole is simply a star that has started to collapse. As the star collapses, the gravity around the star is so great, the light that tries to escape from the star gets pulled back to the star. So all you see is a black hole in space.
It turns out that not only does it affect light, but it also affects time because the gravity of a black hole is so great, that as a clock gets closer, time slows down nearly to a halt. So I felt that by studying black holes, I could study about time. I was able to build my career around that. That was my surface cover story. But underneath all that, I was always studying about how I might eventually build a time machine. It wasn’t until I had tenure that I came out of the time travel closet.
How did the Spike Lee movie come about?
Spike Lee teaches at New York University. Two graduate students of his read my book and took it to him. This was March of last year. Spike had been invited by University of Connecticut. He had the Physics Department contact me. At first I thought they were just kidding. Then he emailed me and I gave him my book. He was going back to Italy to finish filming Miracle of St. Anna. When he came back from Italy, he told me he wanted to make a feature film out [the book]. Then it was like Hollywood – “I’ll have my people contact your people.” We signed a contract back in June.
I’ve had a chance to visit him a number of times now. He asked me to give a lecture to his film class. Recently, I was invited to give a talk at the Guggenheim in New York City. Spike and his wife Tanya came to the talk and it was wonderful. He’s been working hard on the script and it’s very much in development. Over the years, I had seen many Spike Lee movies. I’m a real movie buff. I really was a fan of his. To have this happen is really fantastic. I think he will make a really inspirational and exciting movie.
With such a remarkable personal story, what thoughts will you share with young people?
When you have a dream, it may be very hard, but it’s worth following. When you have a passion, when you have a dream, even though it may seem impossible, you should follow it. We are now in the age of the impossible happening, with President Obama. That would have been something that people thought would not happen. Young people should realize that whatever their dream is, if they are willing to work and follow it, they will be able to achieve it.