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:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…