Sunday, 11 January 2009

Book Review - The Time Traveller: One Man's Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality

The story of Ronald L. Mallett's life has essentially been defined by one tragic moment in his childhood. In 1955 Ronald's 33 year old father died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack and 10 year old Ronald lost the man who was the centre of his universe. After this event he receded from his friends and his life, instead developing a passion for reading. A year after his fathers death he discovered a comic book version of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and this lead him to dream of the possibility of travelling back in time to warn his father of the heart attack and thereby prevent his untimely death.

While most of our childhood dreams fade with time, Ronald never forgot his, indeed it became a secret obsession that he would see his father again and he became determined to build a time machine. Using knowledge of electronics he had learnt by helping his father repair television sets, he secretly built a replica of the machine depicted in The Time Machine. Of course it failed, and he realised he needed to learn more if he was to make it work. His autobiography details how he overcame the hurdles of poverty and racism in order to gain himself an education in theoretical physics, eventually receiving a PhD from Penn State University in 1973.

Ronald knew he was unable to openly admit his goal was to build a time machine as he would not be taken seriously and would be ridiculed, thus far the only person he had told of his plan was his wife. So in 1975 he joined the University of Connecticut as an assistant professor, and studied the only thing that was known to manipulate time: Black holes. He pursued an academic career there becoming more and more despondent as the years passed and he seemingly got no closer to his goal. His marriage failed, as did his health, himself suffering from heart trouble and having to take time out from his career. Realising he was running out of time he reignited his research, and eventually produced a 4 page paper with an equation that predicted that light, as well as gravity is able to manipulate time and built a small experimental model of a time machine to demonstrate it.

He published the paper, and after 40 years of secret work, found that there was a great interest in his work, and the physics community took him completely seriously. He revealed the driver behind his life's work after a question and answer session at a presentation of his theory in Washington DC. In response to this story, Bryce DeWitt, who proved Einstein's theory of relativity, said in front of the conference audience that he didn't know if Ronald would ever see his father again, but did know he would be proud of him. That statement provided the validation of his life that Ronald had always needed, but one part stuck with him, DeWitt had said he wasn't sure Ronald would see his father again. Ronald went back to the equations and soon realised that even if he did build a time machine, the farthest back in time he would ever be able to travel to would be the moment the machine was first switched on. But that didn't matter anymore because he already knew his father would be proud of him, and didn't need to see him to know that.

The book is an inspiring life story as well as an introduction to the various theories of time manipulation. The physics of Ronald's work is presented in easily readable metaphors and although you might not understand them completely (I certainly didn't), you get the general idea and that's all you need to know to follow the story in this book, it really is more about a man missing his father than it is about physics. I certainly enjoyed reading it and believe it is worth a few hours of antibody's time to read this story.

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