Space cowboy

By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 14, 2008

Many scientists have wondered about the possibility of time travel, says Dr. Philip D. Mannheim, a UConn professor specializing in particle and field theory who occupies the office next to Mallett’s, but it’s always “only ever been at the theoretical stage. Ron is one of the people who is actually setting out to do it. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The theoretical ideas that we have seem to permit it. But nonetheless, you still want to see it happen. And that’s what Ron is doing. He’s worked through [Einstein’s theory of] general relativity to find a way to apply these ideas in a tractable situation.”

Mallett is convinced that time travel will become a reality sooner rather than later. “What I’m doing, I like to think of as analogous to the Wright brothers,” he says. “They sent this rickety craft across a few hundred yards of beach. But with the technological acceleration that happened after that, by the middle of the century we had intercontinental air travel. This is only the beginning. Once it can be shown to be done, even in the simplest case, then what we learn from that will be incredible.”

The death of Superman
When I first meet Mallett, he’s just returned from the premiere of Miracle at St. Anna in New York. He’d attended as one of Spike Lee’s invited guests, and he shows me a stack of snapshots of him posing with Lee, and with the film’s cast.

The film had tremendous sentimental value for him. “My father was in the Second World War,” notes Mallett. “He was with the troops that went across the Rhine. It was great for me that this movie emphasized the role of African-Americans in the war.”

Upon coming home, Boyd Mallett used the GI Bill to attend the RCA Institute, where he learned to fix TVs. He was good at it, and he’d often be called to the Manhattan apartments of the stars of the day. “Walter Matthau, Jackie Cooper — he was like television repairman to the stars,” Mallett remembers with a laugh.

Boyd Mallett gave his son gyroscopes and a crystal radio set to play with. He pried open the guts of the family TV set and taught him the rudiments of how it worked.

And then, just like that, he was gone.

“My whole world literally revolved around him,” says Mallett. “He looked like this strong, robust man. When he died of this massive heart attack, it was as though the impossible had happened. He was like Superman. I was just in a daze.”

Mallett stayed that way for a year. Until one day he happened across that copy of The Time Machine. The words spoken by that unnamed time traveler — “Scientific people . . . know very well that Time is only a kind of Space” — struck Mallett like a bolt from the blue.

“That you can move forward and backward in time, just as you can move forward and backward in space — I knew that this was the solution to my problem,” he says. “I read it again and again and again.”

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