Twisting time: Altoona area native gaining prominence with time travel theory
An intense desire to go back and prevent his father’s death has consumed Ronald Mallett since he was 10. He had to keep his fantasy a secret – he already was depressed and he didn’t want his mother, friends and, later, associates to think he was crazy.
While Mallett may never see his father again, his research for 40 years in theoretical physics at the University of Connecticut has garnered international recognition for making time travel plausible, certainly on paper.
He has been published multiple times in scientific magazines – the first while a physics doctoral student at Penn State University. And, he has written a book about his life and work, which Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning producer Spike Lee is developing into a feature film.
“I think I’ll always be seen as a pioneer,” said the Altoona area native and author of “Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality.” Available at BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com.
“I’m being recognized already in my lifetime, even if I don’t see the final time machine. That would be nice if I did, but that is not essential.”
Just last week, Mallett, at 70, accepted a position on the advisory board of World Patent Marketing, a Florida-based manufacturer and distributor of patented products. He joins a retired U.S. attorney, a retired brigadier general for the Israeli Defense Force, a leading Ebola expert and medical doctor, among others.
“This is incredibly exciting,” WPM CEO Scott Cooper told the Mirror. “There is so much going on in scientific research right now. We are surrounded by things we never thought possible even 30 years ago. It feels like we are on the edge of a new frontier. I am thrilled to welcome Professor Ronald Mallett to our board, to help us take the field of physics to its most cutting edge.”
Mallett has had a busy year giving lectures and media interviews, thanks to this being the 100th anniversary of the publication of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity that made time travel a serious topic among today’s theorists and the basis for Mallett’s work.
It also is the year that Marty McFly went into the future to save his children in the 1989 hit movie “Back to the Future Part 2,” one of Mallett’s favorite time travel films.
It also happens to be the 60th anniversary of the death of Boyd Mallett, an event that devastated a young son, setting Mallett on the path he has followed to today.
Paths to Pennsylvania
Both sets of Mallett’s grandparents migrated in 1917 from Mississippi to escape the Jim Crow South, landing in Claysburg where the men took jobs at the Brickyard. It seemed right when their children, Dorothy Kimbrough and Boyd Mallett, got married. She was pregnant by the time he shipped off to World War II. Mallett was born a few weeks after his father crossed the Rhine in 1945.
After the war, the family moved to New York City for Boyd to go to electronics school and learn how to fix television sets before setting up a repair business. Three more children followed: Jason, Keith and Eve. The parents instilled in them the importance of education, and Mallett was intrigued with his father’s work, particularly how a radio could “snatch signals out of the air,” he wrote in his book.
At the age of 33 and on the night of his 11th wedding anniversary in 1955, Boyd Mallett died in his bed of a heart attack.
“Before my father died, I was a happy, gregarious outgoing kid,” Mallett said. “When he died, it was such a nightmare for me, I literally shut down. My father was the center of my universe.”
Shortly thereafter, Dorothy moved with her children back to Pennsylvania. Her parents had relocated to Altoona after construction of U.S. 220 divided their property in Claysburg.
“When I came to Altoona, I felt alone,” Mallett said, recalling the first time he was called the N-word. He beat up the kid, but it made him aware of his race in “a new and negative way” and drove him deeper into depression.
But Mallett loved to read, particularly the Classics Illustrated of the time. He stumbled across “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells in 1957 in a local drug store.
“That changed everything for me,” Mallett said. “I knew this might be the answer for me. That if I could go back in time, I could see my father again and tell him what was going to happen so he could go to the doctor … That was the beginning of my mission.”
Shortly after that, he discovered a 5-cent paperback on Einstein at the local Salvation Army. By then, more research had backed up the genius’ theories on relativity and gravity.
“I didn’t understand everything in the book, but I got the gist of it,” Mallett said. “Even though I had a mission, I still was a depressed kid. But now I had a goal.”
Maybe 12 years old, the Roosevelt Junior High student still was not interested in school. But it slowly sunk in him over the next few years that he would have to study physics and “learn everything about Einstein.”
His senior year at Altoona High, he was the oldest student in Ethelyn Furrer’s algebra class.
“She made the subject come to life for me,” Ron said. “This was very late in my high school career, but all of a sudden, algebra came naturally for me.”
Meanwhile, he also excelled at an electronics course taught by John Bathgate, and he discovered for himself how mathematics could connect to the physical world.
Study, study, study
“My intellectual awakening happened then,” he said. “It was late, but it happened rapidly after that. I don’t know how to explain it, but it comes easily for me.”
His father’s death had plunged the family into poverty, so Mallett knew college was not an option after high school graduation in 1962. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force with plans to use the GI Bill for college later.
His first year of military service was in electronics school at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. After seeing the “Whites Only” signs around Biloxi, he decided to stay on base and “brought himself up to speed” on trigonometry and other advanced math.
He finished in the top 10 percent of his class so was able to pick his base, Lock-bourne near Columbus, Ohio, where he spent three years fixing computers and studying for college.
“I was going to have to understand Einstein’s work and it came naturally,” Ron said. “That would have been daunting if it didn’t.”
He also became absorbed in popular television series of the time, “Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek.”
Mallett exited the service, came home to Altoona, and enrolled at the local Penn State Altoona campus in the fall of 1966.
“That was some of my happiest times,” he said, particularly remembering intense debates with philosophy teacher Charles Watkins.
He took a one-year break and moved to New York before returning to central Pennsylvania, this time to Penn State’s University Park campus.
In 1969, Mallett earned his bachelor’s in physics; a year later, he earned his masters. He was offered a National Science Foundation Trainership and entered Penn State’s doctoral program. Although the university did not require that his academic papers be published, his thesis was in the 1973 Journal of Mathema-tical Physics.
“It was like winning a gold medal at the Olympics,” he wrote in his book.
And, he was a rarity: He was one of only 79 African American Ph.D candidates in physics that year.
Mallett had studied black holes because they were part of Einstein’s theory. They simply are stars that have burned up but have a gravitational field so intense that nothing – matter, light, etc. – can escape. They are invisible. And, the stronger the gravity, the more time slows down, based on Einstein’s theories.
“Your heart rate would slow down, your metabolsim slows down, you age less,” Mallett explained. “If you could get close enough to a black hole, time would come to a halt for you. For everyone else, time is moving at a normal rate. You might only age for a few years, but everyone else is aging decades. That is time travel. … A black hole can act as a natural time machine.
“It was known as a crazy idea, but a legitimate crazy idea,” he continued. “That was my story and it allowed me to study time on what Einstein said on time. Eventually I wanted to find my own way of slowing time down, which allows you to go into the future.
“Of course, I wanted to go into the past.”
His first job was as a research scientist at United Technologies, where he learned about lasers. But he really wanted to teach and research at a university, despite the lower salary. By 1975, he was at the Univer-sity of Connecticut.
Publicly, Mallett was researching and writing papers about black holes and the Big Bang. His first major presentation was in Europe in 1979. Quietly he was absorbing the mysteries of time and space and working on time travel equations based on Einstein’s work.
“As an African-American physicist, I wanted to maintain credibility,” he said, acknowledging that some people embraced the idea that a black man can’t be this smart. “I wanted to be taken seriously.”
But he also wanted to gain tenure at the university, which would protect him and his research, and he knew he had “to play the game” until that happened. He got full professorship in 1987.
After a heart attack sidelined him briefly, he returned to work and by 2000, he made his first breakthrough when his paper, entitled “Weak gravitational field of the electromagnetic radiation in a ring laser,” was published.
“Then I felt completely confident to let people know what I was doing,” he said. “To my surprise, my colleagues took it seriously. That’s when I could come out of the time travel closet.”
His work was confirmed in 2001 when he was invited to present at a prestigious conference at the University of Michigan and he made the cover of “New Scientist” magazine.
“People started paying attention,” he said.
His work was the subject of a documentary film, “The World’s First Time Machine,” which aired in 2003 on the Discovery Channel and the BBC.
Avalon Publishing published his book in 2006. Two years later, Spike Lee bought the film rights to it. The producer and a colleague have been writing the script and figuring out other production details since.
The same year that his book was published, Mallett received the first Outstand-ing Alumni Award at Penn State Altoona. In 2007, the full university named him an Alumni Fellow, the most prestigious honor bestowed upon alumni by the Penn State Alumni Association. In 2012, Altoona Area High School named him a “Distinguished Alumni.”
“That, to me, is unreal,” Mallett said. “It was ironic because I was a non-entity in high school. To be awarded this was something that was really fantastic for me. … I’m very grateful to Altoona and the support that I’ve had.”
He specifically credited Penn State Altoona Chancellor Lori Bechtel-Wherry, who could not be reached last week for comment, and local businessman and community leader Neil Port.
Port’s family gave Mallett a job when he returned home from the military, and the two men became friends while working together on a Penn State Altoona committee.
“Altoona has produced a lot of very talented, very educated people who have gone on to do wonderful things,” Port said. “It wouldn’t surprise me that if a time machine is invented that it would be done by a guy from Altoona.”
Port acknowledges that he is happy his friend’s work is getting recognized, while acknowledging how “complicated” it is.
In the lab
Mallett, who has retired from his teaching duties at UConn, explained that in other science research disciplines, the theorist also does the experiments. But “physics is a very precise division of labor. Einstein didn’t do experiments in the laboratory.” Others did.
Mallett’s colleague, UConn experimental laser physicist Chandra Roychoudhuri, is designing prototype devices based on Mallett’s theories. And, the latest experimental model is a series of stacked ring lasers, each glowing ring circulating around a glass tube, the whole stack theoretically twisting the space inside.
Mallett certainly has an interest in seeing that his theories are proved, so he talks regularly with Roychoudhuri and he hits the fundraising trail when he can.
“I love sci-fi movies and my favorite is ‘Back to the Future’ where you have this crazy professor who has a Delorean in his garage,” he said. “Real science doesn’t work that way. Real science is expensive.”
A feasibility study demonstrating how space can be twisted would cost $250,000. A “real experiment” after that would cost a few million dollars more. If the money comes through for that, “we should start seeing some results” in three to five years, Mallett said.
“To twist time will require greater energy, and we’re talking many, many millions of dollars eventually over a dozen years,” he said.
That’s why he sees his appointment at World Patent Marketing a week ago so important.
“That will give a boost to funding, as well as publicity for my book,” Mallett said. “It shows just how far things have come for people to be taking seriously this notion of time travel.”
Cooper said his World Patent Marketing group plans to put together “one of the largest privately funded research projects that the world has ever seen.”
“Dr. Mallett is a true scientist and visionary,” he said. “He wants to change the world. His only mistake is that he hasn’t been focused on commercialization. That’s where World Patent Marketing comes in. … It may cost tens of billions of dollars and years to achieve but we will make sure that Dr. Mallett gets the funding he needs and that his work doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”
Outside the lab
Mallett’s mother, who loved Altoona and her many friends at Mount Zion Baptist Church, was able to witness her son’s success before dying two years ago. A cousin passed this year, ending any kin connection to Altoona and reason for visiting regularly. His siblings have scattered out west, including his brother, Keith, who is a successful artist in San Diego.
Mallett says he’s not a typical scientist when it comes to relationships with women; he’s married three. But his devotion to his work has made family life more difficult, and he never had children. He is stepfather to the children of his current wife, Terry Mamunes.
He still loves listening to classical music, and he took up the piano in his adult life, learning Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor. He also loves playing computer video games – “Dragon Age: Inquisi-tion” is his current favorite – that take him “into another zone” and help him relax. He’s a voracious reader of biographies and, after Einstein, Sammy Davis Jr.’s is his favorite.
And, he still travels. In January, he plans to go to Austria where the University of Vienna will host his presentation on a popular television program there called “Science Busters.”
“That kind of international recognition is very exciting,” he said.
It’s also important for him to mentor other African Americans, and he gave the keynote speech at a recent National Society of Black Physicists conference. “We’re not a large group,” he said with a laugh. “But we’re a very bright group.”
Mission not accomplished
Mallett is pleased with his life’s accomplishments, although he knows now he will never achieve his main mission in life. If his time machine went online today, it still could not take him back to 1955 so he could save his father. It could only take him back to the moment the machine is turned on: “You can’t go earlier than that because the machine is causing the loop in time,” he explained.
However, other scientists have shown evidence of an advanced civilization out there that, Mallett suggests, may have conquered time travel ahead of his own theories. Other researchers also are addressing issues with time travel, such as paradoxes stemming from going into the past and changing the future. Parallel universes may explain them, according to Mallett.
“The only way we will really know is when we turn the machine on,” he said.
When that happens, “imagine the benefits,” Mallett said. “Suppose we could get messages about natural disasters, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes. We could have control over ourselves.”
But he would forego all of his life’s work for one thing.
“I still would give it all up if I could have my father back,” he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.