Thursday, 2 August 2007

The Time Traveller – Ronald Mallett & Bruce Henderson *****

The idea of travelling in time has been a science fiction standard for at least a hundred years, but it’s one of those subjects that real scientists tend to avoid like the plague. The fact is, scientists can be quite conservative about what they discuss, and though several have postulated that it could be possible to travel in time using impractical suggestions like wormholes, to dare to attempt to design a time machine for real is putting yourself in a real state of risk. Yet this is exactly what physics professor Ronald Mallett has done – and got away with it.
This charming book explains how a boy from a poor family was driven into science by the urge to go back and visit his dead father – it really is the stuff of fiction – and though he was worked on various topic along the way, underlying his progression has always been the belief that he would find a way to travel through time.
The book is superbly readable – it once again shows how academics can benefit from getting the help of a co-author. What might seem fairly unpromising stuff – boy grows up to be academic (yawn) – into a real page-turner. All along the way you want Ronald Mallett to succeed, such is his determination.
The book isn’t perfect. Although the asides explaining the science along the way are generally quite effective, the attempts to put things into historical context by, for instance, summarizing Einstein’s life are just too summary – they make a big thing about Einstein’s children, but don’t even mention the first one, for instance. If you are going to give historical context, it should be better researched. The other big problem is the ending. In a sense, the book has been written too early. Mallett, a theoretical physicist – has devised a means that could enable time travel, and has got an experimenter willing to put something together, but that’s as far as they’ve got, so just when you get to the chapter where you expect the big reveal, in fact the book ends with a rather wishy-washy chapter with such fillers as “what I’d ask Einstein if I could go back.” This was a real disappointment. Without the experimental results, it’s not possible to tell if it would work at all – and if it does work, whether the shift would be big enough to use. Mallett doesn’t mention the faster-than-light experiments of Nimtz, Chiao etc., which do provide a very small time shift, but one that can never be practically used, and this could be the same. (For a broader exploration of time travel, see my How to Build a Time Machine, which features a chapter on Mallett.)
Perhaps the most poignant moment is the realization of a limitation in the approach (one that’s common to many hypothetical time travel mechanisms, so it’s surprising Mallett didn’t realize sooner – maybe this was shifted later for dramatic purposes). His time travel device could never move back earlier than when the device was first made, so couldn’t be used to visit his late father.
Despite those flaws, though, a hugely readable book, a fascinating subject and a delightful story.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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