With all the hype about the movie, “Back to the Future”, whose premise was in part, time travel to the year 2015 – it isn’t surprising there is interest in examining the possibility of time travel again. There are several bits of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity which have been bent, if not broken by new discoveries. For example, we now know that some particles do travel faster than the speed of light, something which the Theory says can’t happen.Scientists may also have begun fledgling steps toward creating what in Star Trek is called a “Warp Bubble” in research on a new type of propulsion.
You never know what is on the next scientific horizon.
This is an important day for Ronald L. Mallett, a retired professor of theoretical physics at the University of Connecticut who is trying to invent a machine that will allow him to travel back in time to reunite with his dead father. Of course, this is an important day for many of us. Today, after all, is Oct. 21, 2015, the date on which Marty McFly and Emmett Lathrop “Doc” Brown, Ph.D., emerged from a time machine of their own into a future world of hoverboards, flying cars and people wearing two ties at once for some reason.
For many of us, this is an opportunity to take stock of the “Back to the Future” franchise’s various predictions and think about the ways in which they have — or, in most cases, haven’t — come true.
Yes, there are hoverboards. No, people don’t have fax machines in their bathrooms. And with the Cubs down 3-0 in their pennant series against the Mets, it looks like it will be at least another year before they win their first World Series since Theodore Roosevelt was president.
But how about time travel itself? Mallett, who considers “Back to the Future” one of his favorite films, acknowledges that the idea of getting into a souped-up DeLorean and zooming into the future is the sort of fantasy that remains relegated to the imaginations of movie producers. But he insists that time travel could, in fact, become a reality, though perhaps on a very limited scale. Whether or not he succeeds, the author of Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality may one day follow “Doc” to Hollywood fame; Spike Lee has reportedly bought the rights to his life story.
Not surprisingly, many of Mallett’s peers do not share his belief that we are anywhere close to building a machine that allows us to travel through time. As Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, put it in an email to The Huffington Post, “Unfortunately, ‘building a time machine’ here on Earth is not realistic.”
“To the best of our current understanding, we simply can’t build time machines at all,” Carroll continued. “But one thing is clear: if we could build a time machine, it would require an enormously strong gravitational field, similar to that you would experience right next to a black hole. Nothing we can imagine making in a laboratory comes anywhere close.
Still, Mallett is determined to pursue his dream.
Below, he shares his thoughts on the realities of time travel, his favorite time-travel films, and his reception among his fellow physicists. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
“Back to the Future” came out in 1989. How close do you think we now are to being able to travel through time, and do you think this is something that people will ever be able to do?
It’s important to realize that the real science of time travel is based on Einstein’s theories of relativity. In a nutshell, Einstein’s special theory of relativity, published in 1905, states that time slows down for moving clocks. In other words, the faster a clock moves the more time slows down. Your heart is a clock, so this would mean that your heart rate will slow down the faster that you move. So if you were able to travel fast enough, you would not age at the same rate as everyone else, and this would allow you to arrive in the future younger than everyone else. In other words, this is time travel to the future. This form of time travel has actually been achieved on a limited scale using fast-moving planes and high-speed subatomic particles.
An experiment was done at the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1971 using two atomic clocks. One of clocks was kept at rest at the Naval Observatory and the other clock was flown around the world at the speed of sound. When the two clocks were compared at the end of the flight, it was found that the clock that had been on the passenger jet had actually slowed down compared to the clock at rest. This means that the plane and passengers had flown fractions of a second to the future. The effect depends on speed. For rockets traveling close to the speed of light, the effect would be more dramatic. An astronaut traveling close to the speed of light returns to earth only a few years older and finds they have arrived decades into the Earth’s future.
Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published in 1915, says that time can be altered by gravity. In particular, Einstein showed that the stronger gravity is, the more time slows down. This has actually been observed. Clocks at the surface of the earth where gravity is strong run slower than clocks at high altitude aboard satellites where gravity is weak. This effect of gravity on time has practical consequences for the GPS units in our cars.
How did you get interested in time travel?
My interest in time travel began with a personal tragedy. I was the oldest of four children and grew up in the Bronx. My father, Boyd Mallett, was a television repairman. For me the sun rose and set on him. He was the center of my life. He spent a lot of time with me giving me scientific gifts like a gyroscope and a crystal radio set. My father looked like a healthy man but he had a very weak heart. He died of a massive heart attack at 33 years old. I was 10 years old and his death devastated my world. I was very depressed. Fortunately, I loved to read, and about a year after he died, when I was 11, I came across a Classics Illustrated edition of H.G. Wells’ famous classic, The Time Machine. The quote at the very beginning of the story changed everything for me. It said, “Scientific people know very well that time is just a kind of space and we can move forward and backward in time just as we can in space.” It was at that moment that I decided that I would have to figure out how to build a time machine so that I could see my father again and perhaps save his life.
Has your understanding of the science changed over the years?
After my father died, the family was very poor and I used to go to the Salvation Army for paperback books, which only cost 5 cents. On one of my visits, when I was 12, I came across a popular level book entitled The Universe and Dr. Einstein by Lincoln Barnett. The book implied that Einstein said that time is not fixed, time could be altered. That made me realize that there was real science behind the possibility of time travel. That’s when I also began to realize that I would have to understand Einstein’s work in order to understand how to build a time machine….Read The Rest Here…
I am adding Dr Mallett to my “Giant Negroes” category – for no other reason than beating the system which prevents so many aspiring young black folks from entering and succeeding in the STEM Field.