#2045 , 1157 Views
By: Ravina Rawal
MOTHERLAND EDITOR RAVINA RAWAL — WHO USUALLY HAS A TOUGH TIME WITH MULTIPLICATION TABLES — TOOK TWO WEEKS OFF FOR A CRASH COURSE IN QUANTUM PHYSICS & ALBERT EINSTEIN TO BE ABLE TO PROPERLY UNDERSTAND WHAT THEORETICAL PHYSICIST AND PROFESSOR DR. RONALD MALLETT PLANS TO DO WITH THE TIME MACHINE HE’S BUILDING. HERE’S AN EXCERPT FROM THE INTERVIEW, IN WHICH THEY TALK ABOUT TIME TRAVEL BEING POSSIBLE, PARALLEL UNIVERSES, AND THE NEED TO FOLLOW IN JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME’S FOOTSTEPS.
I THINK TO EVEN BEGIN A CONVERSATION WHERE WE’RE TALKING ABOUT TRAVELLING THROUGH TIME, WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND WHAT TIME REALLY IS. SO FIRST I’D LIKE TO GET YOUR UNDERSTANDING/DEFINITION OF TIME — IS IT A STRAIGHT LINE ARROW? AN INFINITE SERIES OF MULTIVERSES? WHAT?
Okay, the thing is… time is one of those elusive things… like the ancient philosopher Saint Augustine said, I know what time is if no one asks me, but as soon as someone asks me what it is, then I don’t know what it is. [Laughs] It’s a part of our existence, but trying to define it… Hmm. Basically, you can think of it being a duration. It sounds circular, but we think of things as being in three dimensions. In other words, you think of an object — let’s suppose you’re talking about a solid cube, okay — a cube has a length, a cube has a width, and a cube has a height, those are its three dimensions. But if this cube didn’t have duration, then it wouldn’t exist at all. So you can actually think of time as a measure of the duration of an object. Does that make sense? In other words, if it didn’t endure, then it wouldn’t be able to exist, so it’s a fourth dimension. And it’s interesting because this concept of a fourth dimension was actually stated not by physicists, but by a science fiction writer, one who had a major impact on me. And (I should give some background to this) because you know you may say why is this guy interested in time and time travel in the first place? In my case, it actually has to do with a personal tragedy that happened in my life, when I was 10 years old.
I grew up in the Bronx in New York City, and my father was a television repairman. He was a giant to me, he was someone who was larger than life. I was the oldest of four children; he spent a lot of time with me, and he used to give me scientific toys like crystal radio sets and gyroscopes and things like that. He worked very, very hard, but he had a lot of time for his family and that is what made him the centre of my life. Now, he looked healthy; we didn’t know he had a weak heart, and he died suddenly of a massive heart attack when he was only 33 years old, a kid really.
I was only 10 years old then, and it shattered my world. I mean, it really turned it upside down. I went from being really a happy gregarious youth to becoming introverted and depressed. The one thing that I loved was reading… that was one of the things that he loved to do, so I loved to do too. About a year after he died, when I was 11, I came across an illustrated version of HG Wells’ classic, The Time Machine. In it, it said that scientific people know very well that time is just a kind of space; and that we can move forward and backward in time, just as we can in space.
When I read that, it was like… I said to myself, if we can move back and forth in time, then that means that I might be able to go back and see my father again, and tell him what was going to happen and change everything! So that became an obsession for me, to try and build a time machine. And the book mentioned that time could be thought of as a fourth dimension, and in fact it uses that illustration that I mentioned earlier — that an instantaneous cube can’t just exist, it has to endure for a certain period, and that period of duration is what we call time.
Now what I did as a child is, I actually tried to put this [time machine] together. There was an illustration in there of what the illustrator thought a time machine might look like, and I tried to put that together with bicycle hoops and all kinds of other stuff, using my father’s equipment. Nothing happened. Now because it said that scientific people know very well that time is just a kind of space, I knew that scientists could be important, and that’s when the second [big] thing happened to me. This was about a year after that, when I was about 12 years old. But first, I should mention that after my father died we were very poor, we… it was just horrible, I don’t know how my mother did it — she was only 30 years old herself, and there were four of us kids; at 10, I was the oldest, and the youngest of us was four. She had to go back to work, and she kept it all together, but it was very distraught. Now, I had a very serious book habit, I had to read. So I used to go to the Salvation Army and pick up paperback books for only a nickel. One time, I came across this book that had a picture of Einstein on the cover. And next to Einstein, it had an hourglass. I knew just from the cover that Einstein must have something to do with time, so I bought it. When I started to actually read it, I couldn’t understand most of it, but I did get the sense that Einstein says that time is not something that is fixed, the river of time could be altered, which means you could change time. So I knew I had to understand Einstein to figure out what he even means by the fact that you could change the flow of time, or this river of time, and that was the beginning of my obsession with Einstein. Now you can think of time normally as being a straight line. Even though we’re not familiar, or I should say conscious, of this flow; we’re all carrying on from this stream of past to the present to the future — that’s the normal flow of time, I wanted to figure out how to alter that.
You can think of time normally as being a straight line… Past to present to future, that’s the normal flow. I wanted figure out how to alter that.
BUT TRAVELLING BACKWARD AND FORWARD IN TIME ARE TWO ENTIRELY DIFFERENT CONCEPTS, CORRECT?
Oh, that’s right, that’s exactly right. Einstein developed two separate theories — one of the theories was called the Special Theory of Relativity, and in this Einstein said that time could be affected by speed. What he meant by that is that the faster a clock moves, the more time slows down. Now when I talk about a clock, I’m not just talking about a mechanical clock, okay? Your heart is a clock, it beats a certain rhythm… so that means that the faster that you move, the more your heart rate will slow down, and you would not age at the same rate that everyone else does. So let’s suppose you’re travelling fast enough, close to the speed of light out in space for a few years, it’s only a few years for you… for everyone else, decades could be passing. So when you come back, you might find that even though you’re only a few years older, everyone else could be 20-30 years older — that is actually time travel to the future. So, using speed, we could actually travel to the future. Now this has actually been demonstrated, we actually know that we can do this. There were some very cool experiments done back in 1971, in which they had two atomic clocks (an atomic clock is the most precise time keeping mechanism we have). They put one of these atomic clocks on board an ordinary passenger jet, and they kept the other atomic clock at rest in the U.S. Naval Observatory. When they flew the passenger jet around the world and brought it back, they found that the clock that had been on the passenger jet had actually slowed down, it had actually lost time, compared to the clock that was at rest. This means that all the passengers on board were actually going a little bit into the future; this was a real effect. Now it was only by fractions of a second because even though they were travelling at the speed of sound, the speed of sound is slow compared to the speed of light.
I sometimes try to remind people just how fast light really is. Light travels at a 1,86,000 miles per hour, while sound travels about 7,40,000 miles per hour. Now let’s put that in perspective because really you just hear these numbers and say wow without actually understanding… So the speed of sound is measured in what are known as Mach numbers. In other words, Mach 1 [referred to as simply, Mach’s number] is the speed of sound, Mach 2 is two times the speed of sound, and so on. We have passenger jets that can do Mach 1, fighter jets that can go at Mach 2, and stealth fighters that can go at Mach 3 (which is three times the speed of sound, that’s fast). Now let’s translate the speed of light into Mach numbers — light travels at Mach 1 million. So as far as light is concerned, sound is practically standing still.
Which is why it didn’t have a dramatic effect [on the passengers] even though they were travelling at the speed of sound. Eventually, we’ll have rockets that can go close to the speed of light — when that happens, the effect will be dramatic. As I said, an astronaut going out in space will come back and find that they’re only a few years older, while their families are actually 50 years older — so they will have arrived at the future. And we’ve already seen the baby steps of that with the experiment in the U.S. Naval Observatory.
There are also subatomic particles that normally only live for a very short period of time. You’ve heard of the The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator — that’s in CERN, Switzerland… They’ve been speeding particles up close to the speed of light, and they’ve actually been able to show that they can get these particles to live 10-30 times longer than normal. So time travel to the future is not only possible, but we’ve already demonstrated it. It’s just a matter of time before we are able to do it even more dramatically, and that’s part of what my work is going to be about. But I’ll come back to that later.
OKAY, SO NOW HOW DOES EINSTEIN’S SECOND THEORY — THE GENERAL THEORY OF RELATIVITY — COME IN?
Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, if you want to put it simply, says that time is affected by speed, which we just discussed. Now he realised that this was not enough, because he could adjust that to everything in the world, but the one thing that didn’t seem to fit that was gravity. Gravity seemed to actually travel faster than the speed of light. According to Isaac Newton, gravity can travel from one place to another instantaneously. Now this was a problem, because Einstein said that nothing can travel faster than light, including gravity. So he had to develop a second theory, which took him 10 years, by the way, called the General Theory of Relativity. And what Einstein found is that, in the second theory, time is not only affected by speed, but also by gravity. Now, what do you mean by that? Well, if you compare a clock here on surface of the earth, where gravity is strong, to one at a high altitude, where gravity is weaker, you’ll find that the one at the surface of the earth is actually running slower. According to Einstein, the stronger the gravity is, the more time will slow down. It turns out that that actually has important everyday consequences.
Let’s take the GPS in your car. You may or may not realise that your GPS unit has a little clock in it. And the way in which the GPS system works is that right now, about 12,000 miles above us, there are 24 satellites constantly in motion, which are sending a signal to the unit in your car. These satellites have a clock on board as well. Now there’s a very, very basic relationship in physics, right? That if you know speed and you know time, then you can compute distance? When the engineers originally set up the system, it was giving incorrect locations, and they wondered why was it doing that. What they forgot was they were actually basing it on Newton’s concept of time, which says that time is not affected by anything, including gravity. They were assuming that the clock on board the satellite was running at the same rate as the clock in your unit. But remember what Einstein said — since your clock/unit is close to surface of gravity, time is running slower than the clocks on board the satellites. So they had to use computers to adjust that, and then the system worked.
Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is actually the core of my work, because what I wanted to do was use gravity to manipulate time — and this was where my breakthrough came. Everyone’s used to the fact that matter can create gravity — for example, the gravity of the earth keeps you anchored to its surface, the gravity of the sun keeps the earth in orbit, and so on. In Newton’s theory, the only thing that can create gravity is matter. In Einstein’s theory, light can also create gravity, even though light is not matter. Now you might say, how can that be? Well, a minimal way of understanding that is… you’ve heard of his famous equation E = mc²?
By using light, I could actually twist space because space and time are linked to each other, you can’t have one without the other. So whatever you do to space, happens to time.
…OF COURSE. Okay, alright, so… [Laughs] You know, it’s funny, no matter where I go, or who I’m talking to, even children, everybody knows that equation! Anyway, now what that equation says is that (E = energy, m = mass, c = speed of light, c² = speed of light times itself) mass and energy could be thought of as equivalent. Even though light doesn’t have matter, it has energy, and the energy of the light can be thought of as having a sort of equivalent amount of mass. Now that means that light can have its own gravity, it can create gravity; and according to Einstein, gravity can affect time. So here was my breakthrough: if gravity can affect time, and light can create gravity, then light can affect time. Remember I said that time for all of us normally goes along a straight line — from the past to the present to the future? Imagine you take a strip of paper and you draw a line on that strip of paper. At the bottom of that line, put the past; at the top put future, and the middle is the present.
The past is what you were doing yesterday, in the middle of the line is our interview (today), and the top of the line is tomorrow, that’s the flow. What I found was that by using light, I could actually twist space because space and time are linked to each other, you can’t have one without the other. So whatever you do to space, happens to time. Look what happens when I twist time into a loop [joins the ends of the line together] I can go from the future back to the past. That’s what I’ve been able to show, mathematically.
Like Einstein, I’m a theoretical physicist, I use equations to try to describe the world. And in physics, there’s a big division of labour between theoretical physicists (who use equations) and experimental physicists (who use equipment to verify our theories). Now what did I mean earlier about twisting space, about using light to affect space? The way you can think about this is… there’s a device called the ring laser that actually allows you to create a circulating beam of light by bouncing light off mirrors.
Now imagine you have a cup of coffee in front of you. Think of the coffee in the cup as being empty space and your spoon as being a circulating light beam. What happens to your coffee if I use the spoon to stir it? The coffee starts swirling around, I create a sort of a vortex in it. That’s what the circulating light beam is doing to empty space. In other words, when I turn the circulating light beam on, it’s actually causing empty space to be stirred around. Now you might say, well, if it’s empty space, how do I see it? Imagine now that you throw a coffee bean in there. As I stir, the coffee’s going to drag the bean around, so what I can actually see is the effect of the stirring. The coffee bean in the experiment is a particle called the neutron — a subatomic particle. When I put a neutron in that empty space, and turn on the circulating light beam, it starts twisting space… even though I can’t see the empty space itself, I’ll see the neutron being dragged around. This effect is space-twisting — and if this twisting of space becomes strong enough, then whatever you do to space, happens to time. So eventually, as I said, the straight line of time will get twisted into a loop and that’ll allow you to go back into the past. That’s the essence of my work, and that’s actually the sort of experiment that we’ll be looking at.
SO YOU’RE ACTUALLY GOING TO BE ABLE TO MOVE THINGS IN EMPTY SPACE IN A WAY THAT YOU WEREN’T ABLE TO BEFORE. THIS WILL AFFECT A LOT OF THINGS…
Absolutely, and one of the effects of this is going to be important — it’s going to affect communication in a rapid way. Normally, you send a message or information from one place to another by sending it through space — whether you’re talking about the Pony Express or someone beating a drum, or even over the phone, everything is being pushed through space. What happens if you could not only push information through space, but with space? Let me give you an analogy. Suppose you’re sitting in a bathtub and you have a bar of soap in front of you. Now you can push the soap through the water from one end of the tub to the other. Or, you could actually push the water itself, and speed things up — because now not only is the soap going to be moving through water, but the water is going to be moving the soap as well. Every mode of communication that we have right now, presently, all the information goes through space, even with computers. My work will be a breakthrough in information transfer, by not only moving information through space, but with space. This really is going to revolutionise communication.
It seems to me at this point that there is this barrier to how far one can go back, but how much that can be modified, and in what way, that’s what I’m looking at right now.
TO COME BACK TO TRAVELLING BACK IN TIME AND FORWARD INTO THE FUTURE BEING DIFFERENT CONCEPTS — IS ONE GOING TO BE EASIER THAN THE OTHER? COULD I TRAVEL TO ANOTHER TIME AND STAY THERE INDEFINITELY?
That’s a very, very good question. And, it’s actually easier to move forward in time. In fact, what we’re going be able to do initially is not only twist space for rapid communication, but we’re actually going to be able to send things into the future, and that will happen relatively sooner, probably in a span of 10 years. Going back to the past requires a lot more energy, and a lot more technique. What we’re hoping is that as we develop this, we’ll learn what we need to overcome the energy barrier to go back into the past.
SO WHERE DO THINGS STAND RIGHT NOW?
The thing is that this takes [a lot of] money. But something exciting happened to me recently. There’s a major worldwide organisation called World Patent Marketing (WPM), which became interested in my work and invited me to join the advisory board. And I did, because these are actually a group of dynamic visionaries, who believe that there are great rewards in science and technology. They’re also interested in helping me fund my work. The total amount to accomplish everything we are hoping to, both with space manipulation and time manipulation is probably going to be about $500 million, altogether. But before you react, let me put this in perspective for you. I mentioned the Hadron Collider earlier. Now, what was the purpose of this [device]? Almost 50 years ago, a group of theoreticians predicted the existence of the Higg’s Boson — now popularly known as the God Particle. To come to the prediction of this particle, a number of experiments had been done, and what these experiments involved was actually smashing subatomic particles together with enough energy to create the Higg’s particle. Sounds simple enough, how much could that cost? Ten years and $10 billion, as it turns out, to do nothing more than smash subatomic particles together. See what I’m saying? So $500 million is a bargain! I mean, you’re talking about something that has practical applications, that could actually directly affect all of our lives, and revolutionise how we live. Once again, WPM has allowed this develop this, so it’s really very, very exciting for me. And we’re going to keep things very transparent, and involve the people (who are otherwise prone to believing that time travel is part of some government conspiracy or something — Pegasus Project? Exotic name, but it doesn’t exist!).
SO YOU’RE GETTING READY TO MOVE FROM THE THEORETICAL TO EXPERIMENTAL PHASE, TO ACTUALLY TEST YOUR THEORIES AND GET A DEVICE GOING. DO YOU HAVE A DESIGN IN PLACE?
We do have a design in mind, and that’s this notion of the ring laser. It’s being developed by my experimental physicist partner, Chandra Roychoudhuri who is originally from India. Chandra is a specialist in lasers and he became interested in experimentally verifying my work, so he’s going to be the one actually designing the equipment according to my theory. What you see in the picture [on page 1 of this interview] is not the actual/real device, but it gives you an idea of how it might look… imagine a square with a laser going across each side of the square. That is how our circulating beam of light will be created. And then it’s not just one square, but stacking squares so you actually create a column… that’s the initial design that he will be trying to develop.
There are two other main ideas. There’s Kip Thorne, who’s looking at time travel to the past using wormholes, and Richard Gott who’s looking at using cosmic strings.”
I KNOW HE WAS THE MOTIVATION BEHIND ALL THIS, BUT NOW THAT YOU’RE CLEARER ABOUT WHAT’S POSSIBLE AND/OR EASIER, ARE YOU STILL LOOKING AT RECONNECTING WITH YOUR FATHER? OR ARE YOU SAYING THAT WE’RE NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO MOVE BACK IN TIME LIKE THAT?
There’s going to be a limitation, which we may find that we are able to overcome. One of the things that I’ve been looking at is recently is how quantum physics is affecting all this. What I’ve been talking about so far is pure relativity; when we bring quantum physics into the picture, normally there would be a limitation. Suppose I turn the device on today, and leave it on for 10 years. I could send information back seven years, or five years, all the way up to the point that I turned the machine on. But it can’t go earlier than that because the machine wasn’t on, it didn’t exist, before that. When you bring quantum mechanics into things, you actually bring in something that is a wholly strange aspect. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Uncertainty Principle, but it has different aspects to it. One is the fact that we can only know a certain amount of information, i.e. there’s a barrier to how much we can know about something. For instance, I could know the exact position of something, or exactly its motion, but not exactly its position and motion at the same time. Now that could actually affect the process of time travel itself, but I’m just beginning my research on that aspect, it’s still developing.
It seems to me at this point that there is this barrier to how far one can go back, but how much that can be modified, and in what way, that’s what I’m looking at right now.
AND WHAT ABOUT TRAVELLING TO THE FUTURE? WOULD THAT BE OPEN ENDED?
Yes, right now you can go as far as you like into the future, indefinitely, there’s no limit there.
SINCE THERE’S NO TELEPORTING INVOLVED — WHICH WOULD ALLOW YOU TO MOVE PHYSICALLY FROM ONE SPACE TO ANOTHER — WHAT TIME TRAVEL IMPLIES IS THAT YOU’RE STANDING IN THE SAME PLACE, AND THIS IS ALL ONLY AFFECTING YOUR BODY. HOW DO YOU INTERACT WITH THE NEW TIME YOU’RE IN?
Okay, what we’d be able to do is… if you turn it on the [time machine] and leave it on for 100 years, then people 100 years from now can send back information all the way back to any point in the timeline up till the moment the machine was switched on. Let’s suppose that you have children; eventually, they will have their own family, who in turn will have their own family, yes? Eventually, you will have great, great grandchildren. Now they will be able to send information back to you, their great, great grandmother, but you won’t be able to send information back to them — does that make sense yet? So the way I like to say it, is that our descendants will be able to communicate with us, but we won’t be able to communicate with them.
AND IF YOU STEP OUTSIDE OF THE VORTEX THE TIME MACHINE IS CREATING, YOU COULD INTERACT WITH OTHER PEOPLE IN THAT TIME? IS THAT IT?
Absolutely. As soon as you step outside the region that’s being affected by the device, you can rejoin everyone else. As long as you decide, well, I’m not gonna stay here 100 years, maybe 50, you could do that.
I kept my research a secret by studying black holes. Because that was safe. Even though black holes were considered a crazy idea, it was legitimate-crazy. As opposed to time travel, which was crazy-crazy.
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS — ETHICAL, UNINTENDED — OF BEING ABLE TO CHANGE THE PAST BY TRAVELLING DOWN THE TIMELINE? ARE YOU CONCERNED ABOUT THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT/CHAOS THEORY?
I thought you might bring this up. Yes, unintended consequences could occur, and that will be an important factor… because once we can travel back, we could in fact potentially affect things that will change our timeline. It will have beneficial effects — imagine if we could warn ourselves of tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes; think of the thousands of lives we could save — but there’s [the flip side], of course. People might decide that they want to change things for their own personal benefit, and that would affect everyone else. There’s going to have to be some serious regulations for time travel. In the sci-fi movie Time Cop, Jean Claude Van Damme plays a time enforcement officer — his job is to make sure people don’t use time travel to make themselves rich, which of course people will try to do so. We are going to have to have something like that, and it’s going to require worldwide cooperation at the level of, like, the UN.
And then there is the question of paradoxes. The famous Grandfather Paradox, in which you go back and prevent grandparents from meeting each other, thereby preventing them from having your parents, and then you. So [if that holds] how could you go back? This is why I said that quantum physics is going to be important to my future research — it seeks to show a way out of that paradox, because it has to do with parallel universes. This notion of parallel universes, by the way, was not developed for time travel, it was actually developed back in 1957 by a man named Hugh Everett III. He was a physicist at Princeton, and what he did was to apply quantum theory to the universe as a quantum whole (we normally apply quantum theory only to different physical systems). What he predicted was that whenever there’s an experiment, we think there’ll only be one outcome. But let’s look at an example… what are your two favourite meals?
STEAK AND FISH…
Alright, let’s say that today you’re trying to decide [what to have for] lunch — whether you should have beef or fish, okay? At that instant, there will be a split — there will be now be two of you. There will be one Ravina in one universe in which you choose the beef, and there will be another you in a different/separate universe who’s chosen the fish… and they won’t know about each other, they will each think they’re the only one that exists. And this will happen for every single decision that you make, and every single decision that everyone makes. It’s mind boggling, but what it means is that at every single moment there are replications of everything that has to do with every single decision of every single one of us that’s going on. This is happening all the time [Laughs]. As I said, these things are [taking place] in separate universes, and you might say that the super-universe it’s happening in, is a sort of a hyper-universe.
Now how does this apply to time travel?
There was this physicist David Deutsch at Oxford University, who found that when you travel back in time, the moment you arrive in the past, there’s actually a split — you will arrive in a parallel universe in which you could do something like prevent your grandparents from meeting each other, but you will just find yourself in a strange universe in which you were never born. But that’s okay, because it’s not the universe you will be coming from. You will have arrived in that other universe, where your grandparents meet each other, have your parents, who have you… so what it says is that when you travel back to the past, you arrive in the past of another universe, so it doesn’t affect anything, it doesn’t create/give you paradoxes. Because the universe you arrive in isn’t the one you came from, you can’t actually affect the one you came from.
WELL, WHAT’S THE POINT OF THAT?
Look, that’s just one possible model… the only way to really tell is when we do the real experiment itself. That’s why I said that when you bring quantum mechanics to the picture… it gets more complicated.
COULD THIS BE CONSIDERED LIFE EXTENSION TECHNOLOGY, IN A SENSE? WHERE PEOPLE DON’T HAVE TO DIE BECAUSE THEY KEEP SKIPPING (BACK AND FORTH) THAT EXACT MOMENT IN WHICH THEY DIE?
No, you can’t avoid that, no matter what you do. You could potentially, eventually, visit people who have passed away, but it won’t change your life — because whether you’re going to the future or the past, you will still age at your normal rate; you’re just able to get into everyone else’s future and past, like in the movie The Time Machine. But you haven’t cheated death, you’ve just leapt over what would have been your normal life span for the time being.
DO YOU HAVE A NAME FOR YOUR DEVICE YET?
Well, we have the company, which is called Space Time Technologies, because we’re talking about a revolutionary way to affect space, as well as time, and all of the technology that will help with that…
I READ SOMEWHERE THAT YOU KEPT YOUR RESEARCH ON TIME TRAVEL SECRET FOR A VERY LONG TIME….
In the beginning, when I was first coming into this field, physics was much more conservative than it is now. I had to keep it secret because I was a professor, and I wanted to go up the academic ladder. I also wanted to get tenure because that allows you to come out with crazy ideas, and they can’t fire you for them. When I became a tenured professor, I felt pretty close to invincible. While I felt confident, though, I still had a conservative notion about things. It wasn’t until one of my colleagues at the University of Michigan dragged me out the time travel closet… he actually asked if I’d give a talk at his university, and I was going to give it on something boring like The Gravitational Field of Circulating Light. And he said no, no, we should have something more exciting, and made me add “…As a Possible Route to Time Travel”. When that happened, a magazine called New Scientist decided to do a cover story about me, and suddenly, the very next day, I had e-mail from all over the world enquiring about it. It changed my life completely.
IS THERE ANYONE ELSE’S WORK IN THIS FIELD THAT YOU THINK IS HEADED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION AS WELL?
I should mention that there are other physicists who have looked at time travel, and there are two other main ideas. There’s Kip Thorne [who brought real science to the movie Interstellar], who’s looking at time travel to the past using wormholes, and Richard Gott at Princeton who’s looking at using cosmic strings. So that work’s been going on also. And I talk about that as well, and black holes, and the big bang theory.
WEREN’T YOU USING YOUR RESEARCH ON BLACK HOLES AS A COVER FOR STUDYING TIME TRAVEL?
Yes, I kept my time travel research a secret by studying black holes, which is also important. As a star collapses, the gravitational field around it gets greater and greater till it’s so great that it’ll actually pull the light back, and you see nothing. Now it turns out that they not only affect light, they affect time as well. Remember Einstein’s theory says that gravity slows time down? So the closer you get to a black hole, the more time will slow down. If you’re an astronaut and you came close to a black hole, for you it wouldn’t feel like anything strange was happening, but while only a couple of hours pass for you, you might find that 100 years passed for everyone else. So, in a sense, a black hole can act as an actual time machine.
I decided to actually make my career around studying black holes, because that was safe. Even though black holes were considered a crazy idea, they were considered legitimate crazy, opposed to time travel, which was considered crazy-crazy. So that’s how I was able to eventually get tenure and my reputation, by studying black holes and the big bang theory of the universe. It allowed me to continue to study about time, but I also had a cover story.
The nice thing for me is that I’m talking about something I can develop in a lab, as opposed to looking out at space and hoping you can find a cosmic string.
DOES STEPHEN HAWKING KNOW WHAT YOU’RE UP TO?
[Laughs uproariously] Yes, as a matter of fact, he actually does! If you look up The Real Story of Time Travel on YouTube, I was on a segment with Stephen Hawking and Richard Gott, and they also had Paul Davies, who’s been an advocate of using wormholes. So they’re… aware of me, yes.
AND…? WHAT DOES HE THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE PROPOSING?
They think that the mathematics associated with the idea, and the physics of it, is okay, but from the technological standpoint, it’s going be difficult to travel back into the past because the energies that that requires are great. And I agree with them. Travelling back to the past using this is going to be extremely difficult. It’s going to require engineering innovation that will only develop as we develop our research.
ARE THE WORMHOLE AND COSMIC STRING APPROACHES EASIER? I REALLY HOPE YOU ARE ALL RACING EACH OTHER ON THIS, AND THERE’S SERIOUS COMPETITION INVOLVED.
[Laughs] I think there probably is some competition somewhere, but the nice thing for me is that I’m talking about something I can develop in a lab, as opposed to looking out at space and hoping you can find a cosmic string.
LET’S SAY IT WASN’T SO COMPLICATED TO TRAVEL BACK IN TIME, LET’S SAY YOU COULD DO IT. IS THERE ANYONE OR ANYTHING ELSE BESIDES YOUR FATHER THAT YOU’D LIKE TO CONNECT WITH?
I’d want to see some of the great things of the past — I’d like to see what ancient Rome was like, and ancient Egypt… what were those civilisations like? Maybe the Renaissance. And I love music, one of my favourite composers is Chopin. It would be fun to actually see him perform… What would yours be?
I’M GOING TO GO WITH MICHAEL JACKSON TILL I’VE HAD TIME TO THINK ABOUT THIS. AND SINCE I DON’T HAVE TO TRAVEL THAT FAR BACK IN TIME FOR THAT, MINE’S EASY. GOOD LUCK WITH ANCIENT ROME.
[Laughs] But what this shows, is that everyone has some notion of what they would like to do if they could go back to the past or into the future. If things are fascinating now, what’s it going to be like in 100 years? Everything that seems like science fiction to us now is going to be possible. We take things like a cell phone for granted… but back in the ’60s, when Star Trek came out, Captain Kirk — who was supposedly living in the 22nd century — had this clunky device for a communicator. Now every kid on the block has something that’s far more sophisticated. So yesterday’s sci-fi is today’s technology. It depends on the visionaries behind things. We take for granted what, for instance, the Wright brothers did, what people like Steve Jobs did… they were all visionaries. This company that I’m now a part of, WPM, they have that visionary outlook as well, and I think that’s the reason why this sort of thing is actually going to happen.
AND WHEN MIGHT THAT BE? WHEN ARE YOU HOPING TO SWITCH THE DEVICE ON?
Well, what we’re going to do is first just get things started experimentally this year. There will be a big announcement soon to let people know about the beginning and progress of this project.
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR TIME. I KNOW I TOOK UP MORE THAN I ASKED FOR, BUT MAYBE YOU CAN JUST FIX THAT WITH YOUR RING LASER OR SOMETHING AND PRETEND I DIDN’T.
[Laughs] Thank you, talking to you was actually very delightful.