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Review 202: Time Traveler

Time Traveler by Ronald Mallett, with Bruce Henderson

There are a lot of reasons to want to build a time machine. To learn the truth about historical places and events, to see creatures that have been extinct for millions of years, to kill Hitler – always a favorite. You could go to the Library of Alexandria and save the works of great scientists and philosophers that have been lost to history. You could document the Crucifixion or watch the fall of Rome first-hand. You could see Jimi or Elvis or Janice or Kurt in their heyday, watch the original performances of Shakespeare’s plays, or talk engineering with DaVinci. With a time machine, the whole of history is open to you, and your options are just about limitless.

All Ron Mallett wanted to do with his time machine was see his dad.

Mastering time travel is easier if you have several lifetimes.

This book is not just about how one man went about figuring out how to travel through time. That in itself would be interesting, since time travel has been a dream of mankind ever since we figured out that time was a thing. There’s a lot of complicated science that goes into not just manipulating time, but figuring out that it can be manipulated, and it takes half a lifetime to master. A lot of popular science books focus on the science, unsurprisingly, and talk about how certain things were discovered and what can be done with them in the future.

That’s all well and good, but this book adds an extra element that’s often missing from other popular science texts. It talks about why.

When Ron Mallett was ten years old, his father died of a heart attack brought about by a combination of smoking, poor dietary choices, and a genetic inclination towards heart problems. Overnight, the man that young Ron loved and idolized was gone, leaving him directionless at an age when having a father can be so very important. With the loss of a beloved parent, it’s entirely possible that Ron could have seen his life crippled from that day onward.

It might have been, if not for H.G. Wells and his famous book, The Time Machine.

After he read this book, the notion that time could be navigated became the center of his life. His first attempt at a time machine – built of pipes and wires in his basement – was unsuccessful, of course. But he was undeterred, and realized that if he was going to make this dream come true, he would have to buckle down and start learning some science. Just the idea that he might one day build a machine to travel through time was enough to give him direction and purpose, and it set him on a course that would go on to define his life.

If he manages to make this work, the UCONN Velociraptors will be unstoppable!

The book is a memoir of his own travels through the world of physics and relativity, moving from one point to another as new ideas and discoveries signposted his route towards a theory of time travel. Initially guided by Einstein, Mallett went from being a young academic to programming computers for the Air Force, to becoming a full-fledged academic at the University of Connecticut. He makes sure that the reader can not only follow all the steps that he took, but that we can also see why he took them. What chance encounters and lucky finds pushed him forward, or what unfortunate incidents slowed him down. He reminds us all throughout the book of why he has chosen to do science, and never lets us forget this motivation.

At the same time, he is sure to tell us about two rather significant obstacles to his progress. The first, of course, was that he felt he couldn’t be honest about why he was studying what he was studying – relativity, black holes, lasers, that kind of thing. For fear that he would be labeled a crackpot and denied the opportunities he would need, he revealed his ambition to build a time machine only to those he felt he could absolutely trust. As far as anyone else was concerned, of course, he was just another theoretical physicist trying to figure out how the universe worked.

The other challenge he faced was that he was African-American in a field that was very, very white at the time. He had to deal with racism in both its overt and covert forms, and work even harder to prove himself to those who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see past his skin color. He doesn’t dwell on it in this book, since that’s not what this book is about. But I’m sure if he wanted to write about what it was like trying to break into physics academia as an African-American in the 60s and 70s, he probably could.

Ladies and gentlemen, the father of time travel.

What’s most important, though, is that he continually reminds us of why he’s doing what he’s doing. He talks about his father, and the memories he had of him. He keeps his non-academic life in view, letting us in on his personal triumphs and failures, his struggles with depression and his joys at advancing towards his goal. The end result is a book that is not only about science, but about a person. The emotional thread that runs through this book is strong, and even if you can’t quite follow the science, you can still follow the passion that Ron Mallett has for this project.

The book, while fascinating, is technically unfinished. He has yet to build his time machine, and there’s no proof that the ideas he’s come forward with will actually work, even if the math says they should. As the book finishes, he has a plan, and he lays out the way he thinks his machine should work, but we’ll have to wait to see how that works out. Whether he succeeds or fails, though, he has built up a lifetime of research that has expanded our understanding of space and time in such a way that Einstein – and Ron Mallett’s father – would no doubt be proud of.

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“Time stopped for me in the middle of the night on May 22, 1955.”
– Ron Mallett, “Time Traveler”
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Ron Mallett on Wikipedia
Time Traveler on Amazon.com
Ron Mallett’s UCONN homepage

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Filed under autobiography, nonfiction, physics, quest, Ron Mallett, school, time travel

Review 200: I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High by Tony Danza

If you’re my age [1], the first thing you think about when you hear Tony Danza’s name is the show Who’s The Boss? Honestly, I remember nearly nothing about that show except that it was set in Connecticut (which I only remember because that’s where I was living when it was on) and that Danza played some kind of live-in… servant? Housekeeper? For a divorced career woman?

Hold on, let me check Wikipedia to see if I even got that much right.

I did? Oh, good.

I really have no memory of this show. That might not be a bad thing.

Anyway, Danza kind of slipped out of my cultural viewfinder for a long while, so I was surprised to hear that he had not only written a book, but had done a stint as a teacher in a Philadelphia high school. Being a teacher myself, I was interested to see what his impressions were. He was, after all, coming to it from a very different background than most teachers, and with a different set of perspectives. On top of that, he had been convinced to do it as part of an A&E reality show – something I certainly don’t approve of. Not just because the business of running a reality show would interfere with the class, or because they take work away from actors like my brother [2], but because I think reality shows are a scourge upon modern television.

After going through training and orientation, Danza was put in charge of a double-period English class in Northeast High School in Philadelphia. It’s a huge public school – about 3,600 students – and is made up of kids from radically diverse backgrounds. Some kids were motivated and hard-working, others saw school as an imposition on their lives. Some kids had stable, supportive families, some kids were being bounced from foster home to foster home. To say that Danza had his work cut out for him would be an understatement. He not only had to find ways to engage the students (a buzz-phrase that he – and every other teacher – would come to resent at some level) and make sure they were all committed to their education, but also handle the byzantine bureaucracy that comes with running a school, the politics of the teachers’ office, union issues, getting parents involved, and negotiating the complex moods and interrelationships of hundreds of teenagers. He very quickly learned that being a teacher not only involves a significant investment of time and energy, but also of emotion.

And this is all I remember about “Of Mice and Men.”

Reading through the book, there were a lot of moments where I nodded in complete understanding. Like Danza, I teach literature in a couple of my classes. He was working on making Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird relatable to his students through constant activities and lecture sessions. I do the same with the books I teach. I might have the kids work on a timeline, or produce a short skit based on the story. They might make a poster or even a movie, if we have the time and the ideas for it.

He often runs afoul of the basic principles of being a teacher in such a large community. For example, there’s a section where he takes the students on a field trip to Washington D.C. It’s a wonderful excursion and the kids have a great time, but when he returns he gets a wrist-slapping because he hadn’t notified any of the kids’ other teachers that they would be gone. As far as the rest of the school was concerned, the kids had skipped class. Danza’s response was, “Well, I just assumed…” And that’s where I felt very close kinship with him. One of the things I learned very, very fast when I started this job was to assume nothing. And that’s hard to do, because the school assumes everything.

In another section, the school is practicing for the big achievement tests that will basically determine the school’s status as a failing or a successful school. During one of the tests he’s proctoring, Danza goes out to get more calculators, and is immediately ripped into by the teacher who’s running the test. This teacher says that if it had been the real test, Danza’s carelessness could have invalidated the whole thing, costing the school time and money, and running the risk of making it a “Renaissance School” (a nice euphemism for a school that’s failing so hard it has to be gutted and re-staffed from top to bottom.) My first thought when I read that was that the teacher in charge clearly didn’t communicate the testing protocols clearly enough – he just assumed every teacher would know what to do.

Oh. An apple. Thanks, that makes everything better.

I think a large reason for this is because of the incredible investment in mental and emotional energy that every teacher must make if they’re going to do their jobs properly. As human beings with puny human meat brains, there are only so many things we can keep track of at any given time, and for most teachers their students occupy the largest chunk of that attention. When you’re thinking about a hundred kids or more, invested in the success or failure of each and every one of them, remembering who does and who doesn’t know about some administrative detail is pretty far down on your list of things to care about. Near the end of the book, when Danza was asked if he would be interested in coming back the next year, he said, “At my age, I’m not sure I want to care this much about anything.” And the teacher he’s talking to just smiles and says, “That’s what it takes.”

And it’s true, that is what it takes. No one else would do it otherwise. Throughout the book, Danza looks at the reality of his colleagues’ lives and compares it to the public perception of teachers in the media of the day. The fact is that teachers are in incredible positions of responsibility, yet they don’t gain nearly as much respect and admiration (and money) as they deserve. When the students succeed, people praise their parents and their homes. When they fail, they blame the teachers, or call them “glorified babysitters.” Programs like No Child Left Behind added to the already unbearable burdens of teachers by creating the constant threat of unemployment should the schools not pass a set of standardized tests that may or may not have anything to do with what the kids are already learning.

You forgot your homework? I can’t work like this! I’ll be in my trailer!!

I could go on, but I won’t, since I have another blog where I bitch and moan about things that make me angry. What I will leave with is this – Danza did this as part of a reality show, one that was just as massaged, ordered, and manipulated as any other, though perhaps a little less than most. He was luckier than most at Northeast – only two classes a day instead of five, and he got the room with air conditioning, thanks to the influence of his network. His kids were chosen for the class, and he did the job without the threat of his career being brought to an ignominious end by some bureaucratic federal process. His experience was in no way representative of the other teachers at Northeast High or in fact many other teachers around the world.

All that said, however, it is clear on every page of this book that he cared deeply about the kids in his class and their progress. He cared about how the school worked, about how the other teachers viewed him, and about how the parents were – or were not – involved in their children’s lives. He almost immediately identifies and begins to struggle with one of the hardest problems in teaching – how to make the kids understand that they must be invested in their education. As easy as it is to tell a teacher that he or she must “engage the students,” it is just as important that the students engage themselves. Throughout the book, Danza looks for ways to do this, and it’s a constant theme.

I also don’t wear a tie – but I do wear a cardigan, so it balances out.

I finished the book with no doubt in my mind that Danza did the project in good faith and with full devotion to duty, just as any other first-year teacher would have done. He struggled and triumphed just as any teacher would do, and his sincerity comes across on every page. The title, too, resonated with me immediately, since that’s exactly what I thought when I started teaching. On top of all that, he cries almost constantly, something I’ve never done in my career, so he’s one up on me.

It’s a fast read, and very familiar to anyone who’s become a teacher or knows a teacher, no matter where you are. Plus, there are a ton of ideas to steal, which is a tradition amongst teachers around the world, so I’m grateful for that.

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“Teachers and students need help, not accusations and pay cuts. They need to be a national priority, not an experiment stuck into a late time slot and then canceled for underperforming.”
– Tony Danza, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

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[1] ThirtyCOUGHCOUGHCOUGH
[2] What, me? Oversensitive? Never…

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Tony Danza on Wikipedia
I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had on Amazon.com
Tony Danza’s homepage

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Filed under education, memoir, nonfiction, school, teaching, teenagers, television, Tony Danza