Our first role model of 2013 is Professor Ronald Mallett from the University of Connecticut. Professor Mallett has agreed to share his story and how he became a theoretical physicist studying time travel.
Q: Dr. Mallett, please tell us a little about your life growing up.
Mallett: The first ten-years I had a beautiful life. My dad was a television repairman and we lived in a lower middle-class housing project in the Bronx. I was the oldest of four children and my dad taught me about electronics and televisions. When I turned nine, I worked with him. I think he was preparing for me to go into business with him when I got older. Education was extremely important to him. He wouldn’t give us our allowance unless we did our homework and passed the quizzes he gave us. During that year, he was planning to move the family to Long Island and open his own television repair store. He looked so healthy. We didn’t know he had a weak heart. On my parents’ anniversary, my dad died. I was inconsolable. I went from being a very outgoing and cheerful kid to being depressed and reserved. I had always loved reading, so I retreated into my books. I became disinterested in school and spent most of my time at home in my room reading.
Q. If you lost interest in school, how did you end up becoming a physicist? That requires a lot of school.
Mallett: I would save my lunch money and go to the store and buy books and magazines. There was a magazine series called Classics Illustrated. One of the issues was the Time Machine by H. G. Wells. That magazine changed and saved my life. The inside cover read, “Scientific people know very well that time is only a kind of space. We can move forward and backward in time just as we can move forward and backward in space.” That was the beginning of what became an obsession for me. I decided I was going to build a time machine. That way I could go back in time and tell my father not to smoke and to go to the doctor so that he wouldn’t die. I built my first “time machine” in our basement using bicycle parts and my father’s radio equipment. I put all of this stuff together to look like the time machine on the cover of that Classics Illustrated magazine. It looked like a reasonable replica to me, but when I plugged it in, nothing happened. I wasn’t discouraged. I remembered the inside cover of the magazine said, “Scientific people know…” Because of that, I knew I just needed to learn more science.
Q: So at ten years-old you decided to become a scientist?
Mallett: That was the beginning. We were plunged into poverty, when my father died. My mom worked two jobs to support us. We didn’t have much. Although I wanted to build a time machine, I was depressed and I had no interest in school. I would save my money to buy books at the Salvation Army. At the age of 12 or 13, I got a book that had a picture of Albert Einstein standing next to an hourglass. I felt a deep connection with Einstein. I had heard of him and he died in the same year and within a month of my father’s death. In the book, Einstein said time was not something that was fixed. Time could be altered. I decided if I could understand Einstein that would allow me to travel back in time. The more I learned about Einstein, the more I realized I would have to learn more about science. In high school, I took courses in algebra and electronics. Algebra came to me with no effort, so I started doing math problems to entertain myself.
Q: You mentioned that your mother had to work two jobs and that your family didn’t have much money. Were there other changes you faced as a result of your father’s death?
Mallett: Yes, after my dad’s death and my mom having to work two jobs, it became clear to my grandfather that she needed help. So we moved to Pennsylvania to live with him. In Pennsylvania it was the first time that I was treated differently because I was black. When we lived in New York, we lived in a lower middle-class mostly Jewish neighborhood. I never felt different even though I was the only black kid in my Boy Scout troop. Moving to Pennsylvania and being called names because I was black was surprising to me. However, it taught me that people respect you more when you stick up for yourself.
Q: Who were some of your role models?
Mallett: I idolized my father. He was definitely my main role model. Even though I didn’t know him personally, Einstein also had a big influence in my life. I was very fortunate to have several good teachers. John Babgate was my electronics teacher. He was terrific because he challenged me and told me to consider electronic engineering as a career. He told the class that we had to understand the laws behind electricity, not just know that it works. Ethelyn Furrer, my algebra teacher, recognized my math skills and challenged me. My English teacher Mrs. Rhodes would read Shakespeare and ignited my deep interest in literature. She showed interest in my literary side and encouraged me as a public speaker. These teachers were role models who were very supportive. Finally, another role model that I didn’t know personally was Sammy Davis Jr. I read his autobiography, Yes I Can. From that I learned if you find something you enjoy, something that really turns you on, then people will come around and they will respect you; but you first have to decide what you want. For that, Sammy Davis Jr. was an important role model.
Q: How did you decide to go to college and study physics?
Mallett: From the time I was ten years-old, I had a singular focus. I wanted to build a time machine. I didn’t have money to go to college so I joined the Air Force in order to get the GI Bill to pay for school. In the service I never dated. I put myself on the graveyard shift so that I could study. I read everything I could about physics and time travel. I would read books and have no idea what they were talking about, but I knew if I read enough, one day I would understand. When I got out of the Air Force I went to the Pennsylvania State University. I got my Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD degrees in Physics at Penn State.
Q: How would you briefly explain time travel to the person without any scientific background?
Mallett: We all travel through time, but we do it day-by-day. Time travel means getting to the future faster than anyone else. A time traveler might be able to travel ten years in ten minutes. Time travel could also mean traveling to the past, which at this point we cannot do.
Mallett: Time travel has already been proven. Einstein’s theory says that time slows down the faster you travel. This has also been proven with clocks on passenger jets, the clocks actually slow down by a few seconds.
Q: How do you think you developed the sense of determination that allowed you to keep striving for what some would say is impossible?
Mallett: The deep love of my father and my obsessive desire to see him again was my driving force. That is really what kept me going until that driving force turned into a passion for the subject.
Q: In order to accomplish all that you have, you must have a lot of self-confidence. Did you ever feel insecure or doubt that you would succeed? And if so, what kept you motivated to not give up?
Mallett: My confidence developed as my knowledge about physics and math developed. I would liken it to an athlete’s confidence growing the more they practice. I had doubts as time went on and I got older. I also had doubts as I learned more. I wasn’t sure whether or not it would be possible. What kept me going was the passion I developed for the subject. I love teaching and learning the subject. Even when the research wasn’t going well, I had those other aspects keeping me going.
Q: What inspired you to write the book Time Traveler?
Mallett: I wanted the public to know that scientific time travel is possible. I wanted people to think about the possibilities. What if we could warn ourselves about future disasters, like Katrina? How many lives could have been saved? The other was my personal journey. I wanted people to see my journey and how I was following my dream. I wanted to inspire others to follow their dreams.
Q: What message would you give kids regarding finding the right career?
Mallett: You have to have a dream. Find something that excites you. Whether it is music, science, law, or something else, once you develop the dream or the goal then you have to develop a strategy to achieve that. You have to find a method. I wanted to build a time machine. I needed to learn math and science, so I immersed myself in everything related to physics of time and space and time travel. You have to pay your dues. You have to put forth the mental and physical effort to achieve it. I have a stepson, Chris Beaudry, who is a great saxophonist. He practices six hours a day. When you get tired of practicing, practice some more. It doesn’t matter what you want to be, just focus on that.
Q: What advice would you give parents who want to help their children find the right career?
Mallett: Guidance counselors and parents can do damage by not encouraging a child’s interest. Keep your eye out for what seems to be of interest to your children. Broaden their horizons and read to them. Take them places. Give them as many experiences as possible. Spend time with your children and encourage them at what they are adept at doing.
Q: Do you think your time machine will ever allow you to see your father again?
Mallett: The theory I developed is attached to a device, so if the device is created today and was left on for a year, a year from now I could come back to today. I would not be able to go back any further than that. No matter what method is used, the laws of physics will only allow you to travel back in time to the point that the process was started.
Q: You have had quite an impressive career and much to be proud of; what would you say is a moment in your career that stands out as most meaningful?
Mallett: I was invited to present my theory at the International Association for Relativistic Dynamics (IARD) Conference hosted by Howard University. Some of the most renowned experts in relativity theory were in the audience. One of the physicists I most respected, Bryce DeWitt, known as the co-founder of the quantum theory for gravity. I was surprised, when at the end of the presentation he stood up and said, “I don’t know if you will ever see your father again, but I do know that he would have been proud of you.”
That comment had a profound impact on me. It made me reflect on the reason I was on this path and allowed me to take a moment to recognize my own accomplishments in a way I had not previously taken the time to do.
Q: Dr. Mallett, thank you so much for this interview. I am sure it will be an inspiration to many. Do you have any additional advice to give our readers?
Mallett: Follow your passion and enjoy your journey through time.