UCI News

Border crossings (1)

David Malament's work in relativity never fails to astonish

August 29, 2002

David Malament has spent his working life in the borderlands – the borderline between math and philosophy; the borders of space and time; the very small, specialized field of philosophy of physics, which straddles the border; and, most notably, the line that separates science from science fiction.

The questions that engage him range across 20th-century physical theory – questions about space, time and cosmology; questions about the foundations of relativity theory; and questions about relativistic quantum mechanics.

Malament came to UCI in 1999, after more than 20 years at the University of Chicago, where he held an endowed chair and was chair of the Committee on Conceptual Foundations of Science.

“David Malament is generally considered to be one of the most important philosophers of physics in the world,” says Jeffrey Barrett, chair of UCI’s Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science. “When he moved here, he made UCI one of the best places in the world to study philosophy of physics.” (In a recentPhilosophical Gourmet report ranking philosophy of physics programs around the world, UCI is tied for first place.)

Attracted to UCI’s new program in logic and philosophy of science, and to the young community of scholars, Malament says, “I’ve never been in a community of people in which everyone got along so well, where there was so much mutual respect.”

That’s because Malament and his colleagues in logic and philosophy of science share a high level of distinction and a low level of self-aggrandizement, according to Duncan Luce, Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Sciences and Research Professor of Economics.

“Often scholars of high distinction have difficulty accommodating other scholars on the same level,” Luce says. “Here, Malament and others in the department are gentle people – they are not pretentious, nor do they spend time patting themselves on the back. Instead of a ‘vicious cycle,’ at UCI there’s been a virtuous cycle of community and gentility.”

Malament’s generosity extends to the classroom. Honored for excellence in undergraduate teaching at Chicago, he describes his UCI classes as “part lecture, part free-for-all,” and knows he’s connecting when his students exclaim, “That can’t be right!”

(He’s also drawn to the lifestyle. Though he has trekked in Nepal, Pakistan and India, Malament finds particular favor with Orange County, where, he says, “Almost any day you can go out on a hike, and it’s great being able to walk everywhere.”)

A career focused on mathematical and philosophical foundations of modern physics started with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Columbia University, followed by a doctorate from Rockefeller University’s elite graduate philosophy program. Malament began consideration of large questions in the borderlands with his doctoral dissertation (on causal structure in relativity theory). Later, he expanded on the work of mathematician Kurt Godel: Godel had found a new solution to Einstein’s field equation (in the general theory of relativity) that allows for the possibility of “time travel,” and Malament investigated the energy requirements for such travel (how much fuel to put in the rocket ship).

More recently, Malament has worked on the “delicate and interesting question” of just what one means by “rotation” in the context of general relativity. “It’s not a simple matter,” Malament says. “The theory allows for circumstances in which standard criteria of rotation do not agree with each other, and in which none of the criteria fully answers to our classical intuitions.”

Most likely, Malament will stay with the question for some time. He confesses that he is susceptible to “getting hooked on a subject – it’s a kind of obsession. I worked months and months on my dissertation, for instance – just hammered away at it out of tenacity, inspiration and, perhaps,” he acknowledges with a wry smile, “vanity.

”When I take up a project, I am in its thrall – it’s like riding a bucking bronco. I say to myself, ‘This is going nowhere. I’ll give it one more month, then I’ll move on to something else.’ But six months down the road, I’m still working on it.”

“David is uncompromising – his work is technical, mathematically elegant, and he doesn’t popularize it,” Barrett says. “His theorem on time travel, as one example, is well-known in his field, but not by the public in general. It takes a while to explain Malament’s research, but once people understand his results and their implications, they invariably are astonished.”