One that does is Dr. Ronald Mallett, a professor of physics specializing in particle and field theory at the University of Connecticut and one of the nation's first African-Americans to earn a Ph.D in theoretical physics. Mallett (pronounced M'lette) co-wrote Time Traveler: A Scientist's Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality (Basic Books, 2006) as a first-person memoir of his pursuit and discovery of the equations he says make physical travel into the past a possibility.
This week Spike Lee signed on to co-write and direct a film adaptation of Time Traveler, according to Variety. Lee said he was drawn to the book not only because of the concept of time travel itself (Lee was flirting with other properties relating to the concept), but because Mallett's obsession originated with his father's death from a heart attack when he was ten and his childhood wish to go back and prevent it.
Time Traveler is "fantastic story on many levels (and) also a father and son saga of loss and love," Lee said.
"Spike Lee is one of the most extraordinary and influential filmmakers of our time," Mallett said in an email. "I believe that in his capable and talented hands, my book, Time Traveler, will become an inspirational film."
Spike Lee's most recent film is Miracle at St. Anna, about the experiences of four black American solders in World War II Italy. He's also working on biopics of Michael Jordon and James Brown, a film on the L.A. riots, and a sequel to Inside Man.
Pursuit of a Startling Theory
Mallett's memoir is unusual in that it deals with time travel from a nonfiction perspective. "Hard" sci-fi novels like Gregory Benford's Timescape have stretched theoretical physics as far toward time travel as they can, starting from generally accepted physical principles. Time Traveler may have originated with the influence of fiction -- Mallett's initial excitement about the idea was sparked, interestingly, by a 15-cent comic-book version of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine he came across a year after his father's death. But from there it follows his real-life discovery of Einstein's work on space-time, his study of Godel's work on a solution of Einstein's equation that might allow for time travel, and his own thirty years' research culminating in his recent exploration of the effects of circulating laser light and its application to time travel.
The essential idea is that within a circle of intense, rotating laser beams, space-time can become twisted enough to create a "loop" in time. A particle traveling along the curve of the distortion would move into its own past.
Though time travel is no longer a completely taboo subject among theoretical physicists, thanks in part to the pop-culture musings and winks of Stephen Hawking, colleagues have expressed doubts about the practicality of Mallett's work, according to recent articles including one in The Boston Globe. William Stwalley, Mallett's University of Connecticut department chair, told New Scientist that although he was intrigued by the challenges of the experimental design, making any sort of time machine "seems like a distant improbability." A 2004 critical analysis of Mallett's 2003 study by two Tufts University physicists argued that any closed timelike curves he creates would need to be bigger "than the radius of the visible universe."
Mallett is developing a prototype to explore sending a neutron particle along the kind of curve he postulate, a process called Space-time Twisting by Light.
Lee's film adaptation is bound to concentrate on Mallett's boyhood yearning to undo his father's death and how that translated into his maverick work on time travel, despite the skepticism of others.
"In pursuit of his seemingly impossible goal," wrote Michael Hanlon in the Daily Mail, "he has overcome poverty and prejudice to become one of only a handful of top-flight black physicists in the United States."
"As a psychological portrait of a person irreparably damaged by the death of a parent, and of a theoretical physicist anxious that he will never be taken seriously because he is black, working on time machines and driven by emotion, this book makes for absorbing reading," wrote Alexander Waugh in The Daily Telegraph, underlining the book's mass-audience appeal. But Waugh said that in terms of the physics, the book, while "lucidly written," would "leave too many questions unanswered" for knowledgeable readers.
Ironically in terms of his original motivations, Mallett's own theories now indicate that reversing past events is not possible. "Our universe will not be affected by what you do in the past," he has asserted. Not only that, but a machine built according to Mallett's principles would only allow someone to go back as far as the moment when it was first switched on -- the kind of frustration that could itself be the core of a great novel someday.