My friend the theoretical physicist Ron Mallett invited us to attend the Connecticut premier of Jay Cheel’s documentary, How to Build a Time Machine at Real Artways in Hartford. We were delighted to accept the invitation. I knew Ron’s work, and looked forward to the film. What I didn’t expect was its relevance to craft, to making.
Mallett, who was only ten when he lost the father he adored to heart failure, has devoted his life to seriously and scientifically researching time travel. Longing to see his father again, he was inspired as a child by the comic book version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Time travel became his mission. He read assiduously, studied, and earned a doctorate in physics to further his quest. Using Einstein’s theories, Mallett has developed his own widely respected theories about what he believes is the real possibility of time travel.
In the documentary, Cheel juxtaposes Mallett’s story, his high-level theoretical inquiry, with the story of Ron Niosi, a Hollywood animator who, taken with the movie version of Wells’ story, decided to build a replica of the time machine in the film. Cheel’s portrayal of both men is sensitive and engaging. The documentary takes each of them, and their very different time travel obsessions, seriously, bringing us into their worlds.
Niosi is a consummate craftsperson. In order to make his replica, he learned many skills. We see him making molds, visiting a master pipe bender, and putting the disk of his machine out in the sun because the color is darker than he envisioned. He enlists the help of other craftspeople. What he thought would be a three- month project, becomes a ten-year project. He is a perfectionist and is willing to do something over and over until it is flawless. He realizes that he needs to let go, to move on, but is compelled to do the best possible.
Isn’t this something many of us wrestle with? We strive to make the perfect bowl with the perfect glaze yet it is the bowl with the teardrop drip or the ever so slight wobble that makes our hearts beat. It is the imperfections that we cannot control, that often give a piece its power.
Niosi has not quite come to this conclusion, but at the end of the film, he shows us where he had drilled a hole in the wrong place on the large metal disk of his machine, and in his attempts to correct this, make it perfect, he creates a stress crack, making it less perfect. He has to accept it. And indeed, his time machine is a very beautiful object, a wonder of craftsmanship, celebrated at the end of the documentary with an unveiling part.
If How to Build a Time Machine comes to a theater near you, I recommend seeing it. If not, it’s available for streaming. And if you are interested in actual time travel, read Mallett’s book, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel A Reality. It’s a memoir with science, but you don’t need to be a scientist to understand it.