Looking ahead to 2017, SF Weekly explored several trends we expect in the year to come. Read the other stories, about the resurgence of protest songs, the banning of cellphones at concerts, and the future of fast-casual restaurants in S.F.
“Scientific people know very well that Time is only a kind of Space,” says the narrator in The Time Machine, H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel.
“But if Time is really only a fourth dimension of Space …” one of the narrator’s dinner guests protests, “why cannot we move in Time as we move about in the other dimensions of Space?”
“My dear sir,” the host replies, “that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong.”
In 2017, Ronald L. Mallett, a retired research professor of physics at the University of Connecticut, hopes he will finally be able to prove that Wells’ narrator was right.
Mallett has wanted to build a time machine since 1955, when he first read the classic science-fiction work at the tender age of 11. The year before, Mallett’s father had suddenly died of a massive heart attack, and as the youth grieved, he also became obsessed with one day traveling back in time to warn his dad.
“If I can build a time machine,” Mallett recalls thinking. “I can go back and see him again, and maybe save his life.”
Mallett, who hid his passion for time travel for many years, out of the reasonable fear that people might think he was loony, presented his ideas on time travel at a TEDx presentation in Vienna, Austria, in October. He is also featured in the documentary How to Build a Time Machine, which premiered in May in Toronto.
“This was in the dark ages before Star Trek,” Mallett explains in the TEDx talk. “I knew that this was not something that I should tell people because they didn’t even believe that we could travel in space.”
Mallett eventually became a tenured professor of physics and an expert in Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity, which form the basis of Mallett’s theory of how to construct a time machine.
Over the years, Mallett — who was one of the first African-Americans to receive a Ph.D. in theoretical physics when he received his degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1973 — has been featured in a variety of media, including ABC’s Good Morning America and National Public Radio’s This American Life. (In 2008, Spike Lee’s production company, Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks, acquired the rights to make a motion picture based on Mallett’s memoir, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality. But for now, that project seems to be dead on the vine.)
When speaking to skeptics about his work, Mallett likes to point out that time travel to the future is already possible, per the special theory of relativity, which states that time slows down for a moving clock. Thus, a twin who goes on a long space journey at nearly the speed of light would age more slowly than her counterpart who stayed home on Earth. By the time the spacefaring twin returns home, the siblings might be years or decades apart in age.
That particular result of Einstein’s theory, Mallett says, was confirmed by the Hafele–Keating experiment in October 1971, when Joseph C. Hafele and Richard E. Keating compared very accurate cesium-beam atomic clocks that had been flown around the world on commercial airliners with other clocks that had remained on the ground. The clocks’ times differed by very small amounts, just as Einstein’s theory had predicted. The moving clocks had traveled fractions of a second into the future.
But no matter how fast one travels on a plane or on a spaceship, the special theory says, time can never slow down so much that it actually goes backward.
That’s where Einstein’s general theory of relativity comes into play. The second theory, which has also been confirmed by experiment, states that the gravity of a massive object also slows down clocks — and twists the space around it like a human body warps the shape of a trampoline.
Mallett says his calculations — described in “The Gravitational Field of a Circulating Light Beam,” an article published in 2003 in the peer-reviewed journal Foundations of Physics — show that it may not only be possible to create the same warping effect with high-energy laser beams, but also that the lasers may create a time loop that allows travel between the past and future.
“I made a major breakthrough in showing that circulating light can twist space,” Mallett brags. Of course, not everyone agrees his ideas will work.
In the 2011 book, Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts Through Time, Allen Everett of Tufts University and Thomas Roman of Central Connecticut State University, argued that even if Mallett’s math is correct, a working machine would be impossible to build.
“Taking Mallett’s model at face value, one finds that it is fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons,” the authors wrote, pointing out that — according to their calculations — the machine would have to be impossibly large.
“The closed timelike curves [or time loops] predicted by the model only occur at distances that are unimaginable orders of magnitude larger than the visible universe.”
But we won’t know who’s right until someone conducts the necessary experiments.
The physicist says that people ask him all the time how long it will be before a working time machine is constructed.
His answer? “When people are willing to pay for it.”
As is often the case with people who have big ideas, he is asking for money. He tells SF Weekly that he needs $250,000 to do the feasibility tests that can show whether his laser beams can actually twist space in the way that he describes.
So far, he has raised about $11,000, but he is hopeful, with renewed interest from the 2016 documentary and the recent TEDx talk, that it may be easier to reach his goal after launching another fundraising campaign in the coming year.
“If every person who went to see a science-fiction movie last weekend put a dollar in,” he observes, “I would have the quarter of a million dollars that I need.”
Sadly, even if Mallett proves that travel to the past is possible, his model for a time machine would only allow travel as far back as the moment that the machine was first turned on — no earlier. That means traveling back to the 1950s to warn his father is out of the question.
When that particular point dawned on him, Mallett says, “It made me sad, but I had achieved the goal I had set out to” achieve — namely, showing that Wells’ narrator might actually be correct. “I feel sad, but I feel vindicated.”
Meanwhile, if sending a person back through time turns out not to be practical, Mallett has a Plan B: a machine to communicate with the past, because theoretically, sending information would require fewer resources than sending a person.
“The most practical thing would be early-warning systems,” he suggests.
These, presumably, would allow future versions of ourselves to alert earlier versions of ourselves about things like earthquakes, terrorist attacks, or perhaps even the outcomes of presidential elections.
To watch Mallet’s TEDx talk and other presentations, and to learn more about his fundraising efforts, visit SFWeekly.com.
Channing Joseph is the editor-in-chief of SF Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @cgjoseph.
Here’s our favorite version of Mallett’s presentation on how time travel might happen.
Here’s Mallett’s October talk at TEDxVienna.
Here’s the trailer for the 2016 documentary film How to Build a Time Machine, which features Ronald L. Mallett.