Before beginning the “Amateur Hour” event at the Institute Library, author and New Haven resident Jack Hitt passed around pieces of paper and asked everyone in the audience to write down where they would go and what they would do if they could travel back in time. He then read some of the responses aloud.
“I’d go back to 1975 and un-break hearts.”
“I would travel back to the last time I had sex with my ex-girlfriend because I didn’t know at the time that it was going to be the last time.”
“I’d go back to the moment immediately following the birth of Barack Obama so that I might cradle him lovingly in my arms and stroke his baby head.”
On Wednesday night, Hitt hosted a conversation with Ronald Mallett, professor of physics at the University of Connecticut, where Mallett spoke about his theory of time travel. Moderated by Hitt and author Joshua Foer, the “Amateur Hour” series “explores the passions and pursuits of America’s most inspiring fanatics, obsessives, tinkerers and collectors,” according to the library’s website.
Indeed, if you could find a time machine anywhere in New Haven, it would probably be at the Institute Library. The library itself feels like a time capsule — it is filled with old New Haven directories, outdated maps and globes and a functional card catalogue. Even its electric lights are gas lamps with light bulbs stuck into them.
So an “amateur” who is trying to build a time machine fits right in.
“There’s two places where one can be a kind of amateur,” Hitt said. “One is outside a fortress of expertise. The other is at the edge of knowledge.” Hitt placed Mallett in the latter category.
Mallett later shared what he would do with a time machine. He would travel back and tell his father two things: “I love you” and “Stop smoking.” Mallett’s father died of a heart attack at age 33, when Mallett was 10.
Mallett’s motivation to find a way to travel back in time, usually relegated to the mad scientists of science fiction B-movies, arose from his father’s premature passing.
After reading H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and falling in love with science fiction, Mallett realized that time travel could provide some sense of closure.
“If I went into the past, I could see him again, [and] then save his life,” Mallett said. “That became my goal, my mission.”
To that extent, Mallett spent the rest of his life fleshing out a theory of time travel throughout college and beyond, sacrificing a couple of marriages and his health (he was developing heart problems, “which was ironic”).
He kept his ideas under wraps until 2001, when he finally developed a feasible theory. If he had let the time-travel cat out of the bag too soon, it would have been “professional suicide.”
But now that he has a fuller idea of how time travel might be possible, Mallett was able to explain it to his audience.
His ideas piggyback on Albert Einstein’s theories — Mallett distilled these complicated concepts into two simple statements: gravity affects the passage of time, and light can create gravity.
“If gravity can control time, and light can create gravity, then light can… ” Mallett paused to let the audience connect the dots. A few finished his sentence: “ … control time.”
Mallett’s current proposal is to use a ring laser, which creates a circular beam of light. This would cause the space within the circle to twist. If the twisting is strong enough, it could begin to bend a helical slinky path of space-time! Anything within this vortex could travel backward or forward in time. The device has a catch, though — you can only travel back in time to the point at which the machine was turned on.
A member of the Institute Library, who attended the talk and declined to give his name, was disappointed with this constraint. He has decades of regrets, he said, including the one he wrote about his ex-girlfriend.
Others were afraid of the possibility of time travel becoming a reality.
“I hope it never happens,” said Mike Cooper, a teacher from Shelton, Conn. “So much could go wrong.” Renowned physicists Calvin and Hobbes, of comic strip fame, anticipated this concern.
“Something doesn’t make sense here, and I think it’s me sitting in this box,” Hobbes once told Calvin after building a time machine out of a cardboard box. Hobbes later said, “All this time travel makes [me] queasy.”