Ron Mallett went to sleep at his home in the Bronx to the sounds of laughter and conversation. It was May 1955, and his parents were celebrating their 11th wedding anniversary. He awoke to the sound of his mother crying. His father, Boyd Mallett — an electronic technician who had helped wire the new United Nations building — had died of a heart attack at age 33.
Ron had adored his father. Even though Boyd Mallett worked two jobs, he had always taken the time to answer his son’s questions and teach him the value of an education.
At age 10, “I was completely crushed. I went from being a very happy, outgoing kid to totally into myself,” Ron Mallett recalls. “The family plunged into poverty. I OD'ed on science fiction. Even though I was not in class, I was usually in the library or at home reading,” he says.
Ron bought the Classics Illustrated comics series of “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells, when he was 11, and he read it repeatedly. The story gave him an idea that became his passion for almost 50 years. He would build a time machine, so he could go back in time and save his father’s life. But he kept his plan secret.
He tried to make the machine pictured in the comic book, spending hours in his basement. When it didn’t work, he read the original book, with a dictionary at his side. Then, about two years after his father’s death, he spotted a paperback book cover that had a picture of Albert Einstein standing next to a huge hourglass. He read that Einstein’s breakthrough was to treat time as a fourth dimension. Young Ron was hooked. He realized he’d have to return to school so he could understand math, physics and Einstein’s theories.
Today, Ronald L. Mallett, Ph.D. is a theoretical physicist and full professor at the University of Connecticut. He was advisor of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) chapter there from 1978 to 1982. Through the many challenges, twists and turns of his life — watching his mother struggle to provide for her family; dealing with a stepfather who didn’t value education; facing racism; a career in the Air Force; divorce; remarriage — he never stopped seeking a formula for time travel.
And incredibly, one day in 1999, while studying gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity and the work of other noted physicists, Dr. Mallett had his “Eureka!” moment. He concluded that a circulating light cylinder can penetrate space and twist time, the way a spoon stirred in coffee can create a swirl in the center. Then, just as a coffee bean would swirl around as the spoon stirred the coffee, a subatomic particle, a neutron, could travel through this space.
In 2000, Dr. Mallett published a paper outlining his theory. In 2001, he presented his time travel theory at a physics department colloquium at the University of Michigan. New Science magazine ran a cover story on it later that year. He got calls and e-mails from all over the world.
The spotlight shined on. National Public Radio’s “This American Life” did a segment on Dr. Mallett in 2007. Two of Spike Lee’s graduate students heard it and told the film director about the physicist. Lee read Dr. Mallett’s memoir, “Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality.” The two met, and Lee decided to make a movie about Dr. Mallett’s life. The screenplay is being written.
In the meantime, Dr. Mallett is working with a colleague at the University of Connecticut, experimental physicist Chandra Roychoudhuri, to create a machine that tests his theory. They need $10 million for the work. He’s hoping the publicity generated by Lee’s film will help bring in funding.
And if science proves his theory?
“He’ll get the Nobel Prize,” says Tepper L. Gill, Ph. D., a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Howard University. He saw Dr. Mallett’s presentation at an international conference at Howard in 2002, with 50 of the world’s leading physicists.
But Nobel Prize or no, he will not be able to see his father, Dr. Mallett says. According to his theory, the machine would only be able to travel to the point where a time machine existed. So, if the machine became operational in 2020, for example, people from 2090 would be able to travel “back” in time, but only to 2020.
This realization saddened him, but he has become philosophical about it, Dr. Mallett says. His dream of seeing his father carried him through countless obstacles. Also, his machine could be used to travel to the future. Dr. Mallett thinks of all of the lives that could be saved if physicists could create an early warning, time-travel device to warn people about earthquakes and hurricanes.
So, at age 63, the youthful Dr. Mallett continues his work with passion, welcoming opportunities to speak to younger people, telling them to follow their dreams.
“Even though my original goal of being able to travel back to the 1950s has morphed into something else entirely,” he says, “I am still motivated to complete the project, out of sheer curiosity and the science of seeing it work.”