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Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics, issue 5, Volume iii, Volume I.

The perils of physics and a personal journey

By Helen Gavaghan

Time Traveller
By Ronald Mallett
With Bruce Henderson
Corgi Books (2008)
Paperback £7.99.
284 pages, including endnotes and index

Ronald Mallett has written two books in one. Book one is the tale of a man who aches so much at the early death of his father that he develops a secret childish desire to travel back in time and warn his father how he might change his life and so not die in the author's childhood. The secret wish became a passion, expressed first in maths and then in physics.

Book two, interwoven with the first, is the gradual introduction of ideas of physics that make time travel theoretically possible. Maths, too, seems to suggest it is possible, and often mathematical constructs have turned out to be accurate descriptions of behaviour in the natural world and, in turn, have allowed human beings to build machines that seemed with previous knowledge to be impossible; aircraft, for example, are implausible if you know no physics.

Racism forms a subtext for the whole book, addressing the subject as experienced by black (now more often called African) Americans. Mallett grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in the US north of the Mason-Dixie line, and though he met childish ignorance, it was not until he moved south as a young man for airforce training that he encountered entrenched, widespread and adult, ugly bigotry. All of a sudden he was in a world in which blacks and whites were almost two separate species, with the law applied differently to each. Mallett vowed not to leave the airforce base except to go back to his own world. He kept the vow. These were the days of Martin Luther King at the height of his power and of his non violent but highly effective protests.

Despite this at no point in this book did I have the sense that proving his manhood in the face of racism was what drove Mallett. It seems to me he has no doubt about who he is, has a comfort level with his skin colour and knows any problem belongs really to the perceiver not to him. Throughout it is the ache for his father that is the dominant psychological flavour. He notes the negative attitudes (he and Steven Weinberg, the nobel laureate, seem not to get on) but he is not racially defensive and does not immediately think that it is the colour of his skin that others dislike. When the colour of his skin does look as though it will cause an outbreak of racism he does not enter racist fights (except one as a child) but finds his own way of asserting himself irrespective of race. The racism bothers him but does not dominate his path through life. I labour the point only because to pretend the issue of racism and Mallett's manner of letting it wash over and through him does not exist would be to do a disservice to the author, his father and families.

Clearly the presentation of the physics is made by a university lecturer. What one gets out of what he writes depends on how much one knows in the first place, and he creates a narrative arch out of a branch of theoretical physics - theories of relativity and the nature of time - to arrive at a time when he files a US patent for a ring laser with potential application for a time machine.

Interestingly his early laser work was as an industrial scientist working for United Technologies (the United Aircraft Research Laboratories) immediately after completing his Ph.D and before joining academia. His first job was to provide theoretical backing for Pratt and Whitney, which wanted to use high-powered lasers to drill holes in turbine blades. His task: to develop a theoretical model to predict how efficient lasers would be at the task. So academia and industry feed one another.

Where does Mallett's story begin? Well, aptly, it begins in a lecture theatre at Howard University in Washington DC. There, speaking to fifty plus of the world's leading physicists in relativistic dynamics for particles and fields during the 2002 meeting of their scientific organisation, Mallett laid out his ideas for time travel.

Then Mallett's narrative backtracks to his early life and we start down the closed-time loop of his future that takes us back to the beginning. To partially quote from T.S.Elliott in Little Gidding from The Four Quartets, the end is where we start from and to make an end is to make a beginning.

Almost immediately we face the question of what is time. When, asks Mallett, is the beginning of time? A question asked by Saint Augustine, whose work Mallett read as an undergraduate majoring in physics. Did time begin when the Universe began or before? Another way of asking this question is, does time exist if it cannot be observed and measured?

For the study of relativity clocks are central. Before Einstein people sought increasingly accurate ways of measuring time. Einstein changed all that when he conceived of time as a variable and added it to the three commonsensical variable dimensions of space (length, width and depth). Then the dimension in which space and time form an indivisible whole of spacetime was created. Mallett, in his Ph.D thesis, made this last mathematical construct into a fifth dimension and used it to explore time reversals in an expanding Universe.

Always he had his secret goal in mind. And his patent, filed July 2, 2003 with the US Patent and Trademark Office, called LOTART, for a laser optical time machine and receiver transmitter, is a terrifying device that does not permit time travel but would enable insider trading and currency manipulation and commodity scams and dictatorship on a scale unimagined until now. For Mallett the aim is good, but as with nuclear weapons the potential for harm leaves me fearful. His device once switched on could receive signals from the future about conditions in the future.

For now the device is still a mathematical construct in which exact solutions to Einstein's gravitational equations applied to cylindrical lasers generates one solution that describes a physical world in which there is a closed-loop of time outside the laser cylinder. Having filed the patent Mallett retrenched and began some serious experimental physics to establish the first step toward such a device, namely clarifying how the cylindrical laser changes the gravitational field in our physical reality. The next experimental step (as of 2006 when this book is copyrighted) would be, writes Mallett, to send fragments of elementary particles in streams past the calculated location of the closed loop in time to see whether or not it exists in reality as well as on paper.

The book overall is a good round-up of the key papers and concepts about relativity and time. It has a good index and endnotes rather than a bibliography. The approach works for me. It gives a flavour of where the physics of relativity brushes against cosmology and philosophy, and the crucial nature of very advanced algebra and calculus is made clear. More importantly for those struggling to understand why they should learn the abstractions of pure and other forms of mathematics Mallett gives a superb teacher's introduction to the way the subject allows the exploration of ideas and the testing of physical reality. Distributed also as an html email attachment.

This copy was first published online on 24th September 2008 and corrected for typos 25th September, 2008.

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