Back to the Future Superfan and Physicist Is Trying to Build a Real-Life Time Machine

Wednesday, 21 October 2015 - 4:10PM
Science of Sci-Fi
Physics
Wednesday, 21 October 2015 - 4:10PM
Back to the Future Superfan and Physicist Is Trying to Build a Real-Life Time Machine
Today is Back to the Future Day, and while most of us dream of traveling back in time in a DeLorean, superfan and prominent physicist Ronald Mallett wants to make it a reality. (Except for the DeLorean part.) Mallett has built his career on the idea that building a time machine on Earth is possible, and aims to use one at some point in his life in order to see his late father again.

We know from Einstein's theory of relativity that time travel is possible while traveling at extremely high speeds; NASA astronauts age .0007 seconds slower every six months that they're in space as a result of effects explained by Einstein's time dilation theory. Mallett, a physicist at the University of Connecticut, believes that these theoretical principles can be applied to creating a time machine on Earth, if only we could work out the logistical and engineering difficulties.

Opening quote
"My work is based on Einstein's general theory of relativity, which allows for the possibility of time travel," Mallett told The Huffington Post. "However, the practical realization of a time machine is a technological one, which will require creative engineering innovation."
Closing quote

Mallett was inspired to begin his life's work after a personal tragedy; his father passed away when he was very young, and his work is aimed towards seeing him once again:

Opening quote
"About a year after he died, when I was 11, I came across a Classics Illustrated edition of H.G. Wells' famous classic, The Time Machine. The quote at the very beginning of the story changed everything for me. It said, 'Scientific people know very well that time is just a kind of space and we can move forward and backward in time just as we can in space.' It was at that moment that I decided that I would have to figure out how to build a time machine so that I could see my father again and perhaps save his life."
Closing quote

In the past, Mallett has proposed building a time machine by using a ring laser, which is composed of two beams of light of the same polarization traveling in opposite directions in a closed loop. He claims that at sufficient energies, ring lasers could produce closed timelike curves, which could allow for time travel. However, many other physicists insist that any conception of a time machine, including Mallett's, are technically possible, but would be unfeasible in our spacetime, let alone here on Earth.

Opening quote
"Unfortunately, 'building a time machine' here on Earth is not realistic," said Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech. "To the best of our current understanding, we simply can't build time machines at all. But one thing is clear: if we could build a time machine, it would require an enormously strong gravitational field, similar to that you would experience right next to a black hole. Nothing we can imagine making in a laboratory comes anywhere close."
Closing quote

While it's true that it is unknown (at best) whether time travel will ever be possible in the sense that Mallett is attempting, he responds to naysayers like Carroll by pointing out that many technological innovations that are now taken for granted were considered to be "impossible" once upon a time:
Opening quote
"I like to point out a quote that I had at the preface of my book Time Traveler that was made at the beginning of the 20th century by influential physicist Simon Newcomb, who was a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Newcomb stated, 'Flight by machines heavier than air is impractical, if not utterly impossible.' Newcomb made the statement in 1902. A year later, Orville and Wilbur Wright took to the skies."
Closing quote

And what is this superfan doing for Back to the Future day? He's going to marathon his favorite time travel movies, including the adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine and, of course, the full Back to the Future trilogy.

Opening quote
"Incidentally, the first movie in the series has a special meaning for me because Marty McFly goes back to 1955, which is the year my father died. By the way, it's also the year that Einstein died."
Closing quote
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