Space cowboy

By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 14, 2008

At night, he’d return home, playing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” over and over again as he filled notebook after notebook with blizzards of scrawled equations, despairing that an answer was just out of reach.

“It played havoc with my personal life,” he confesses. “I think it eroded my first marriage. To the people [at UConn], I would be upbeat, everything was going fine, but when I would go home, I went into these very depressed moods. My whole reason for being — my whole reason for being a physicist — was so I could see my father again.”

The sweetness of technology
Mallett had an equational epiphany of sorts in 1999. And it was not long after, he says, that, “in a sense, I was dragged out of the closet.” The ideas behind his eureka moment are complicated for the layman, but suffice it to say that they’re based on Einstein’s general theory of relativity — as opposed to Einstein’s special theory mentioned above — and have to do with the gravitational twisting of space (and, ideally, time) by directed beams of light. (Read about them in more detail here.)

But just as this breakthrough seemed to advance him closer than he’d ever been to his dream of a father-son reunion, the cold sting of logic put the kibosh on Mallett’s exuberance.

Yes, time travel was theoretically possible. And yes, he seemed to have found a way to make it happen. But, he realized suddenly, any time machine built based upon his theories would only allow a traveler to return to the moment the machine was switched on. Ipso facto, it would be impossible to travel back to a time before the machine was invented.

It was cold comfort that that fact still provided a satisfying rebuttal to the age-old argument against the existence of time travel (which went, “If it exists, why haven’t we been visited by people from the future?”). Because it also meant that Mallett could not possibly travel back to 1955. He would never see his father again.

When I ask if this revelation crushed him, Mallett is philosophical. “It wasn’t devastating. It was sad. But here’s the thing: there’s a notion of what’s called the ‘sweetness of technology’ — that is to say, just knowing that you can do it, and that you have been able to do it. That was inspired by my father.” That understanding, he says, was enough to make all his long decades of work worthwhile.

And it was gratifying, too, to see his colleagues and fellow physicists validating (or at least not debunking) his findings. Mallett’s ideas have been politely received — albeit sometimes with a raised eyebrow — and, to date, no one has found fault with his calculations. “It’s because my work is anchored in Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This is not ‘Ron Mallett’s Theory of Time Travel.’ That’s why my colleagues have taken it seriously.”

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