Renowned professor brings time travel theory to Penn State Abington
Friday, January 29, 2010
By Mike Morsch
Denzel Washington? Or maybe Will Smith?
No, no, no. Don’t ask Dr. Ron Mallett who he’d like to see play him in the movie version of his life because he’s having none of that.
Filmmaker Spike Lee is the one doing the talking with his actions. Lee is currently co-writing the screenplay and plans to direct the movie version of Mallett’s life based on the renowned physicist’s book, “Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality.”
What Mallett was more than willing to talk about, though, were the possibilities of actual time travel to a group of more than 200 people, mostly students, at the Penn State Abington campus Thursday.
And the lecture was more physics than it was science fiction, “Back to the Future” kind of stuff.
“What I teach students is the importance of realizing that the possibility of time travel rests on solid physics based on the work of [Albert] Einstein,” said Mallett, a theoretical physics professor at the University of Connecticut, in an interview before the lecture. “Einstein is the basis of my work, and that is extremely important. His special theory of relativity is now about 105 years old. The thing is, right in that theory is the possibility of time travel into the future.”
What has become a lifelong journey to prove the real possibility of time travel actually started when Mallett was a boy after the devastating and sudden death of his father, Boyd, at age 33. It was then that he got the idea to build a time machine so that he could go back, change history by warning his father to improve his lifestyle and thus prevent the fatal heart attack.
“He was the center of my life. His death completely turned my life inside out,” said Mallett.
And then the youngster read the legendary science fiction story “The Time Machine,” by H.G. Wells.
“But it wasn’t until I discovered Einstein [at age 12] that I realized it really is possible to do this [time travel]. As a child, I believed it. Now I know it.”
Ironically, Albert Einstein died in 1955, the same year that Mallett’s father died.
In the most simplistic form of this complex issue, Mallett’s theory essentially shows how to reverse time by using just a circulating beam of light. He eventually wrote a paper in 2000 showing how a circulating beam of laser light could create a vortex in space-time. He called it his “eureka moment.”
It’s no “flux capacitor,” the fictional core component in Dr. Emmett Brown’s DeLorean time machine featured in the “Back to the Future” movies. Mallett’s theory is based strictly on science.
And when it comes to science, there are always skeptics, but Mallett, who earned his undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees from Penn State University, takes the questions and criticisms in stride and even throws in a dose of humor during his presentations on the topic.
“What people don’t realize is that experiments have been done that actually show that this is possible,” he said. “So what I try to do is show the skeptics the real results of things that have been done. That’s how I overcome.”
Among the questions that Mallett frequently gets asked is what would be the point of building a time machine.
“I say, think of it as an early warning device,” he said. “Imagine if we could send information back to the past and warn ourselves of something like an earthquake, the number of lives we could save as a result of that. To me, that is what makes it worth the effort and that’s what I’m hoping to be able to see in my lifetime, the possibility of sending information back into the past.”
Mallett emphasizes that it’s information — not humans — that he hopes to send back in time.
That brought up the possibility of humans changing the future, exactly one of the questions Mallet was asked by a student during the question-and-answer period after the lecture.
Mallett answered by explaining the “Grandfather Paradox,” which asks what would happen if a time traveler went back in time and prevented his grandparents from meeting each other.
“The thing is that there is a possibility that if you change the past, you don’t change the past of our universe but you change the past of a parallel universe,” he said. “That’s actually a very real part of physics, this notion of parallel universes. So that means in some sense we could prevent disasters from happening in a universe that was like ours.”
But he added that reality is a strange thing, and it could happen that we could alter our real universe.
“Once time travel occurs, if someone has altered the past, then everything that we think as being our reality could be an altered reality,” said Mallett. “So it’s going to have to be regulated to make sure we don’t do the wrong thing with it.”
Students attending the lecture seemed convinced by Mallett.
“I’m taking physics and a relativity course and I believe that it [time travel] is something that can be done with enough passion,” said Andrew Menezes, a Penn State Abington student from New Jersey. “As long as we have the technology that we continue to develop.”
“His findings are very curious as to time travel, both forward and in reverse, based on the differences of light, speed and time,” said Daniel Severns, a sophomore from Warrington. “[We’ll see time travel] in minor fractions, yes, but not in full science fiction like we viewed as children, unless there is more development in terms of getting speed relative to the speed of light.”
As for the movie, well, Mallett eventually did talk about it a little bit. He said the film is now in “very active development.”
“Sure, I’d like to have a cameo somewhere,” he admitted. “It’s fun for me to think about who might play me, but the whole reason I’m into this is the love for and attachment to my father. So for me, who Spike is going to cast as my father is even more important. To actually see this representation of my father on the big screen is going to be incredible. And my mother is still alive, so it’s not only going to be interesting to see who is cast as her, but it will be something for her to see my father again.”
Mallett followed his lecture by signing copies of his book in the campus book store.