A Beautiful (Black) Mind: Ronald Mallett
Ronald Mallett at the Einsten House in Bern, Switzerland
When Ronald Mallett was only 10 years hold, his father died suddenly and unexpectedly. Young Ronald was stunned by the loss. He had admired his father greatly. He was a smart, hard-working man whose skill in electronics and natural curiosity had dazzled and impressed his young son.
Shortly after his father’s death, young Ronald read a book that would change his life forever. Mallet describes how his encounter with a science fiction classic set him on his life’s course:
Fortunately, among the many gifts my father bestowed on me was a passion for reading, and it was in books that I found some measure of solace. A little more than a year after Dad’s death, one book in particular became the turning point in my life: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I was consumed by the possibility that I might be able to build a time machine that would allow me to travel to the past and see my father again. This time I would warn him that his bad habits would kill him – and soon.
The possibility of time travel became more real in my mind when, a few years later, I came across a popular book about the work of Albert Einstein. Einstein, said the book, was able to show that time is not unchanging but can be altered; in fact, if you move a clock fast enough, time slows down! This gave me hope that one day I might actually be able to build a time machine. I learned, too, that Einstein was a physicist. There was no other route: I would have to take science and learn higher mathematics to understand his work and embark on my own journey.
Daily life was a constant struggle for my family after my father’s death. I was the oldest of four children my mother had to provide for on her own. Somehow her inner strength kept the family together and allowed us to survive. My dream of a time machine remained a secret and after high school I enlisted in the US air force to get money for college.
Studying on my own while I was in the military, I learned that Einstein had developed two theories of relativity. His special theory of relativity, which has to do with the speed of light, allows the possibility of time travel into the future. This form of time travel had already been demonstrated experimentally. His other theory, the general theory of relativity, has to do with gravity and allows for the possibility of time travel into the past.
When I was discharged from the air force, I set to work and eventually won my PhD in physics from Penn State University. At college, I researched cosmology, which allowed me to study the structure and evolution of the universe as well as the theory of black holes. These subjects provided cover for my interest in building a time machine, which I feared would not be taken seriously.
– Ronald Mallett in New Scientist
Eventually Mallett’s passion would earn him tenure at the University of Connecticut. More importantly, his work on black holes, of great interest for their ability to slow and distort space and time, has earned him the respect of his colleagues as a cutting-edge theoretical physicist.
Ironically, the young Ronald Mallett was not terribly enthusiastic about school. His drive to excel was fueled by his singular passion to uncover the mysteries of space and time and return, eventually, to the past to reconnect with (and possibly to save) his father.
Mallett’s story serves as a reminder that the difference between reluctant or apathetic learners and engaged overachievers can be as simple as the presence of a passion, an interest, or question, or topic, or skill that lends relevance to the pursuit of knowledge.
If you have a passion, share it with a young person you know, especially if it’s a kid who seems disinterested in school and learning. You just might ignite his or her intelletual curiosity. You might just be setting him or her on the path to become the next Einstein, the next Feynman, the next Banneker or Carver, or Woodson… or the next Ronald Mallett.
Check out Ronald Mallett’s personal website (with lots of links to recent articles and interviews).
Posted by Ajuan Mance