And when the time machine he cobbled together didn’t work, “I figured, maybe I just needed to know more.” It wasn’t long before Mallett got his hands on a paperback version of Lincoln Barnett’s The Universe and Dr. Einstein, which puts the concepts of Einstein’s abstruse relativity theories in as plain English as possible. “I knew if I could understand what Einstein was saying,” says Mallett, “then maybe I could put that together with this desire to build a time machine.”
Living two lives
The rest, as they say, is history. (Or, depending when you’re reading this, the future.) Mallett was never particularly mathematically inclined. “It was a pain in the neck when my father would make me go through the multiplication tables before I could get my allowance,” he says. But after his dad’s death, he willed himself to like numbers.
“Because I had this goal, this mission, I realized I was going to have to do it,” says Mallett. “I knew science and math were going to be the keys.” Serendipitously, if pure arithmetic was a crashing bore, Mallett found he had a natural affinity for complex analytical math. “For some reason, just the way my mind works, it came to me with little effort whatsoever. I would just do it for fun. Literally, I just was thrilled by it.”
Yet despite Mallett’s numerical perspicacity, the world wasn’t exactly an open book when he graduated high school in 1962. He was shy and socially awkward. He’d never been kissed. And, of course, he was a working-class African-American whose single mother was struggling to support four kids.
Mallett joined the Air Force. After dodging racist taunts in segregated Biloxi, Mississippi, during basic training, he was transferred to Lockbourne AFB in Ohio, where he studied electronics and computers and, in his free time, took correspondence courses in advanced math and pored over the entrancingly beautiful equations of Schrödinger and Gödel.
Upon his discharge from the service, Mallett landed in Happy Valley (a/k/a/ Penn State), where he’d go on to earn his bachelor’s, his master’s, and his Ph.D. He joined the physics faculty at UConn in 1973, and has been there ever since.
But for at least the first two-and-a-half decades he spent in Storrs, Connecticut, he lived in what he describes now as “the closet.” Even when he was a boy, building a time machine out of junk in desperate hope of reuniting with his dad, Mallett recalls, “I was astute enough to realize that people were worried about me, and somehow I didn’t think it was a good idea to tell them I wanted to build a time machine.” As an academic at a large university, he felt doubly compelled to keep his mission under wraps. After all, a physicist confessing to one’s colleagues that he wants to build a time machine is akin to a professor of zoology wanting to take a leave of absence to search for Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster.
Indeed, Mallett often felt like he was “living two different lives.” By day, he was a jovial faculty member, conducting lectures, advising grad students, and penning provocative papers about black holes, gravitation, and quantum cosmology that were published to plaudits in peer-reviewed science journals.