This Turning Point article was written for New Scientist by Dr. Ronald L. Mallett. You can find out more about the events that changed his life and first led him to his interest in time travel and building a time machine by reading his new book, Time Traveler: A scientist's personal mission to make time travel a reality, published by Thunder's Mouth Press in October, 2006.
by Ronald L. Mallett
I remember the early years of my childhood as a happy time spent in the larger-than-life presence of my father. Dad was a television repairman who worked and played equally hard. But he died abruptly of a massive heart attack at 33 when I was only 10 years old. His death left me depressed and in utter despair.
Fortunately, among the many gifts my father bestowed on me was a passion for reading, and it was in books that I found some measure of solace. A little more than a year after Dad's death, one book in particular became the turning point in my life: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I was consumed by the possibility that I might be able to build a time machine that would allow me to travel to the past and see my father again. This time I would warn him that his bad habits would kill him - and soon.
The possibility of time travel became more real in my mind when, a few years later, I came across a popular book about the work of Albert Einstein. Einstein, said the book, was able to show that time is not unchanging but can be altered; in fact, if you move a clock fast enough, time slows down! This gave me hope that one day I might actually be able to build a time machine. I learned, too, that Einstein was a physicist. There was no other route: I would have to take science and learn higher mathematics to understand his work and embark on my own journey.
Daily life was a constant struggle for my family after my father's death. I was the oldest of four children my mother had to provide for on her own. Somehow her inner strength kept the family together and allowed us to survive. My dream of a time machine remained a secret and after high school I enlisted in the US air force to get money for college.
Studying on my own while I was in the military, I learned that Einstein had developed two theories of relativity. His special theory of relativity, which has to do with the speed of light, allows the possibility of time travel into the future. This form of time travel had already been demonstrated experimentally. His other theory, the general theory of relativity, has to do with gravity and allows for the possibility of time travel into the past.
When I was discharged from the air force, I set to work and eventually won my PhD in physics from Penn State University. At college, I researched cosmology, which allowed me to study the structure and evolution of the universe as well as the theory of black holes. These subjects provided cover for my interest in building a time machine, which I feared would not be taken seriously.
Black holes, collapsed starts that trap light, also have a profound influence on time: getting close enough to one can cause time to nearly come to a halt. As dangerous as black holes may be for the unwary space traveller, they were a safe way for me to study the influence of gravity on time. My route through academia was waylaid by a stint as an industrial research scientist working on lasers. Ironically, this unexpected detour was to provide the key to my breakthrough in time travel research. After much painstaking work, I developed the theories (based on Einstein's general relativity) that serve as the foundation for building a time machine to the past, a time machine that would use circulating laser beams. So far no one has proved me wrong.
But I do wonder: what would Einstein make of my theories if he could come back for an hour? And if my machine worked, just what would I say to my dad?
Based on Time Traveler: A scientist's personal mission to make time travel a reality by Ronald L. Mallett with Bruce Henderson. Thunder's Mouth Press, ISBN 1560258691.
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Publisher: Thunder's Mouth Press (October, 2006)