Skip to main content

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 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under

Regeneration - Paul Hawken **

This is a really big book. I don't mean big in the sense of important, but physically enormous for what it is - it's roughly the size of a children's annual, though a lot thicker. Interestingly, the format appears to be a Paul Hawken speciality - he did it with his previous title, Drawdown ,  though that was far less glossy. Paul Hawken's aim is to put forward a solution to climate change driven from humans rather than from the science. The tag line on the back of the book reads 'The climate crisis is not at science problem. It is a human problem.' And that itself is a problem. It's not that climate change isn't a human problem, but rather that it's both a human problem and a science problem - requiring human and science-based solutions. But the approach taken in this book is anything but scientific. It's a bit like saying the Covid-19 pandemic is a human problem, not a science problem. The pandemic is indeed a human problem, but if we'd tr