Beam me up Scotty! This well known phrase from Star Trek , the television and movie series, was usually followed by Captain Kirk, or other members of his crew, magically dissolving away only to reappear on a nearby planet or a neighbouring ship. Kirk and his team were using their “transporter” to teleport from one point in space to another, a feat no one thought possible in the 1960s when Star Trek was first aired.
In the decades to follow, teleportation remained in the realm of science fiction playing a central role in movies such as The Fly, Jumper and The Prestige . Even McDonalds has got in on the act: its latest adverts show teens beam into their local fast-food outlet.
We can all see the benefits of human teleportation. Hop out of bed in the morning, brush your teeth, eat your cereal and beam into school. No school bus, no walking, no cycling. Better still, beam to Spain to top up the tan or to New York to pick up some bargains in the shops. We could beam astronauts up to the International Space Station or to the moon, negating the need to replace the soon to be retired space shuttle.
Over the past few years, science has been getting closer to bringing teleportation in to the realm of science fact.
There are a number of possible scientific principles that might one day allow for human teleportation. The first involves utilising wormholes, tiny tunnels in space and time (we first came across wormholes in a previous issue of BANG when we looked at time travel). Wormholes allow tiny subatomic particles to “teleport” from one place to another, and from one time to another. They exist all around us but are only a billion trillion trillionth of a centimetre wide and only last for a fraction of a second.
If scientists were to create very large wormholes, then humans could use them to travel from one place to another almost instantly.
But wormholes are unstable and would need to be massive (much heavier than our sun) to allow humans to pass through them. Otherwise the gravitational forces would be uneven across the mouth of the wormhole causing you to become “spaghettified” – stretched into a long infinitely thin column of atoms. And that would hurt and most definitely kill you. So, let’s rule out wormholes in our quest to invent human teleportation.
The second possible method, and the more likely way of achieving human teleportation, is called quantum teleportation.
Normally, when we think of teleportation, we think of moving matter (either an object or a human body) from one place to another. But quantum teleportation doesn’t do this. Instead it involves analysing the precise atomic configuration of the object, dematerialising it and then sending the details (or quantum state) of that object’s precise atomic configuration to another location, where it is reconstructed. Essentially, one would have to destroy the original object and recreate it in the new location.
It all sounds a bit bonkers, right? Well, quantum teleportation is not science fiction, it is science fact.
Ever since the idea was floated in 1993, scientists around the world have been carrying out experiments in an effort to achieve quantum teleportation and with some success too. So far, scientists have successfully been able to quantum teleport photons, subatomic particles found in light, from one place to another up to distances of 16km. While this is some achievement, and a huge step to realising human teleportation, there are still problems.
A typical human consists of a trillion trillion atoms, each consisting of protons, neutrons, electrons and other subatomic particles. To teleport a human from one place to another, one would have to analyse the precise location of each of the several trillion trillion particles that make up that human and reassemble them in the exact same way in the new location. That is not easy and would take a huge amount of time (look up the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle to see just how hard this might be).
Also, quantum teleportation involves destroying the original object and recreating it in the new location. It is not clear if a human’s thoughts, emotions and memories would also be recreated.
What is clear though is that the principle of quantum teleportation is sound and that, in time, technology could be created to allow for humans to be beamed from one position in space to another.
In the meantime, we must remain content with watching Star Trek and resign ourselves to airport check-in.
Beam me up Scotty!