The world's first time machine

SUPPOSE IT were possible to go back in time and meet the dead. To say all the things you never got a chance to tell a loved one who died before there was a chance to make your peace. A new book tells the story of an extraordinary man whose life work...

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Published: Sun 29 Jul 2007, 8:53 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:43 PM

timeis inspired by a longing to do just that. It was the devastating sudden death of Ronald Mallett's beloved father which sparked his obsession with time-travel.

In pursuit of his seemingly impossible goal, he has overcome poverty and prejudice to become one of only a handful of top-flight black physicists in the United States.

He has enjoyed a glittering career as a professor at one of the country's leading universities - an achievement in itself.

But there has been only one motivation: to build a time machine. And, after years of painstaking research, Mallett is sure he's cracked it.

His journey began in the early 1950s, when this intelligent and inquisitive boy was ten years old.

He lived with his parents Boyd and Dorothy in the Bronx, in New York city. The Malletts were happy there, having escaped the terrible racism of the Deep South.

Boyd Mallett was a gadget freak, and a talented, respected electronic technician - one of his jobs was to wire up the new United Nations building being constructed in Manhattan.

Then, the night after his parents' 11th wedding anniversary, Boyd died suddenly of a heart attack."For me, the sun rose and set on him," Ron Mallett said later. "It completely devastated me."

Boyd Mallett's death was probably preventable. He had always been a heavy smoker and workaholic and had started drinking too much.

His son sank into a despair that would not lift; indeed, he became severely depressed. Ronald simply could not accept that he would never see his father again. And he began to wonder if there was a way they could be reunited.

Mallett devoured the pulp sci-fi comics of the time, and began to realise that time travel was, at least in fiction, a possibility. Then he read what is one of the finest science-fiction stories ever written, HG Wells's The Time Machine.

From that day, Mallet became obsessed with time travel, despite having no clear idea of how it could be accomplished.

Most importantly, Mallett realised - as Einstein had himself - that the new way of thinking about gravity, space and time contained in the physicist's Special and General theories of relativity meant that a time machine was at least possible in theory.

Einstein's equations showed that by twisting spacetime around, it is possible in theory to make a connection from future to past. Step into this timeloop, and you could emerge years later or earlier.

timeThis idea would form the basis of Mallett's putative time machine. But, back in 1950s New York, he was a long way from his goal. Growing up poor and black, one of four children raised by a widowed mother who made ends meet by window-cleaning, is not an ideal recipe for academic success.

Undaunted, he studied hard at school and achieved good grades, particularly in the sciences. However, a university education was out of the question - there was simply no way his family could afford to pay for it.

So Ron Mallett joined the U.S. Air Force, in the hope of being granted a military scholarship so that he could later study physics. His test grades were so good that he was fast-tracked into the USAF's electronics school.

Despite his success, the past still intruded in the most horrible ways. Mallett's first tour of duty was in Biloxi, in the Deep South. There, for the first time in his life, he encountered the soul-destroying racism that had driven his grandparents north 40 years before.

"The first thing I noticed," he writes, "were the signs, the likes of which I had never seen before. 'Whites only'. 'No Coloured'."

His studies paid off. After he was discharged, he won a place at Pennsylvania State University, and began a degree in physics.

Eventually, in 1973, he won his doctorate, only the 79th black American ever to do so in this subject. Part of his thesis was an investigation into the theoretical possibility of using gravity to reverse the passage of time. In 1975, he was awarded a job as a professor of physics at Connecticut University - where he has worked ever since.

He remains the only black physics professor in America.

Despite the respectability of his CV, he still felt he couldn't discuss his ideas openly. "I feared professional suicide," he says now.

But, as his work continued, the story got out. Mallett's time machine went public in 2001, when New Scientist magazine ran an article about his design, and TV appearances followed.

In 2000, he published a paper showing how a circulating beam of laser light could create a vortex in spacetime. It was, he says, his eureka moment.

The details are complex, to say the least. But, in essence, Mallett believes it is possible to use a series of four circulating laser light beams swirling spacetime around like "a spoon stirring milk into coffee".

If you were to walk into this 'timetunnel' - which would resemble a large vortex of light a few feet across - you could emerge at some point in the past. He thinks he can build a prototype machine in the lab, using today's technology, with funds of just $250,000.

However, Prof Mallett is fussy about who gives him the money. "We want non-military sources. I don't want to get to a certain point and get 'top secret' slapped over the project and have it taken away from us."

There are several important things to realise about Mallett's time machine. For a start, it would only be possible to travel back in time to a point after the machine was first switched on.

If you turned on the machine, on January 1 say, and left it running for three months, you could enter the machine in March and only travel back as far as January 1.

While some physicists have questioned Mallett's approach, no one has yet proved with absolute certainty that the machine would not work.

Mallett is now 62 years old. He still believes he will live to see the creation of the first time machine.

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