Jim Castagnera: The joys of time travel





[Jim Castagnera, of Havertown, is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University and a 2007-08 Fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.]

       About 15 years ago, when I was still practicing law with a firm in downtown Philly, a colleague at the firm was politely thumbing through some vacation pictures I’d foisted in his face.  Suddenly he turned and shoved one back at me.  My kids and I were splashing in the Ocean City surf together.

      “What do you think you’ll be willing to pay in 30 years to able to jump back into that picture?” he asked me.

        Only half way there, but with the nest now empty, I sometimes slip a video cassette into our player and slide mentally back to the early nineties, when our kids were… well, still kids.  Honestly, I don’t get maudlin.  But I can’t watch those old tapes without recalling my law colleague’s penetrating question and feeling a wee little pang of longing.

      In this I’m not alone.  Lots of folks look back longingly.  As with the weather, however, few of us do much about it, beyond viewing those old videos.  An exception is Professor Ronald Mallett of the University of Connecticut.  I heard about Professor Mallett on NPR the other day.  The physicist was recalling how, as a 10-year-old boy growing up in the Bronx half a century ago, he lost his father, whom he adored.

     “I thought,” said Mallett, “if I could build a time machine, the way HG Wells had suggested, then… I could see my father again.”  Mallett never let go of that dream.  He’s currently seeking funding for his “Space-Time Twisting by Light” project.

      I can’t comprehend how Google can search the world-wide web and bring me two million ‘hits’ in .92 seconds… or how a jet airliner can climb to seven miles and soar at 500 mph.  So don’t expect a coherent explanation here of how Professor Mallett plans to go back and visit his old man.  Suffice to say that Einstein assured us that both space and time are relative concepts.  Mallett proposes to bend the so-called space/time continuum.

     “What you would see,” he said, “would be a cylinder in which you would have laser beams that would be intersecting in such a way that they would create this huge light tunnel.”  If you want to learn more about his theory, you can try contacting him at U. Conn: http://www.physics.uconn.edu.

     My brief research revealed that --- not surprisingly --- the good Doctor Mallett’s ideas have been sharply challenged by fellow physicists.  Nonetheless, I can’t help admiring him for tenaciously pursuing his dream.  As I said at the top of this column, it’s a fantasy we all share to some extent… wanting to leap back into that aging photo or that flickering videotape.

     Other dreamers have longed to plunge into the future.  The earliest published book about time travel is “Memoirs of the Twentieth Century,” penned by one Samuel Madden in 1733.  Unnumbered novels, short stories, comic books and films have been devoted to the subject ever since.  Charlton Heston’s journey to the “Planet of the Apes” leaps immediately to mind.  The theory behind that time-trip is more plausible than Mallett’s scheme.  Most scientists seem to accept Einstein’s idea that, if you travel somewhere around the speed of light in outer space, time will slow down for you, so that when you return to earth a ton of time will have passed, while you’ve aged hardly at all. 

     Bouncing back into the past seems a lot more unlikely.  Anyway, I don’t think I’d really go back, if I ever had the chance.  Why?  Well, just rent a movie called “The Butterfly Effect” (2004).  Even Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) finds a way to go back to his childhood in an effort to clean up the mess he’s made of things.  The remainder of the film involves his (often hair-raising) attempts to land back in just the right moment to do just the right thing.  The trouble is that, every time he moves one puzzle piece, the entire pattern changes… always for the worse.  Eventually, he has to give up the love of his life in order to nip the future at its very roots.  Trust me, this is not a happy movie.

     No. folks, no matter whether Dr. Mallett is a genius or a nut, I’m sticking with my old home movies.  I know how they turn out… every time.


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