The Science to Science Fiction Transition: Teleportation

Beam Me Up Scotty has become a catch phrase – but is it possible?

I picked this topic for this week because I saw a news story with the headline:

Beam me up: Scientists say human teleportation is ‘possible’ as they transfer atoms three metres in groundbreaking experiment

Based on the story that follows, this headline is a flat out lie.  And I’ve seen similar articles over many years repeatedly making the same lie.  I’m sure a lot of low-information folks thinks scientists are teleporting things willy nilly in their labs all day long instead of curing cancer or telling the truth about global warming.  But I digress…


There’s an effect, long known in quantum mechanics and one that Einstein was skeptical (but wrong) about, in which indeterminant particle states can become instantaneously assigned over a distance. At least that’s one interpretation of the equations of quantum mechanics, and it seems a likely one.  This has been called “quantum teleportation” but is not actual “teleportation” in the sense that most of us think of it. The head scientist confirms, but also confuses:

What we are teleporting is the state of a particle,’ Prof Hanson, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, said.
‘If you believe we are nothing more than a collection of atoms strung together in a particular way, then in principle it should be possible to teleport ourselves from one place to another.

 ‘In practice it’s extremely unlikely, but to say it can never work is very dangerous.

 ‘I would not rule it out because there’s no fundamental law of physics preventing it.

 ‘If it ever does happen it will be far in the future.’

The Daily Mail and the scientist are pulling a fast one on the reader. The “state of a particle” and “a particle” are not the same. One is information, the other is an actual physical object.  At best, what we’re talking about here, is a kind of fax machine. A copier over a distance. To even be remotely considered teleportation they have to win a philosophical argument about whether a perfect copy is the same as the original. Like Dr. McCoy, and the traveler in James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur,” I’m skeptical (especially if we’re talking destructive copying of the original, and it may be worse for the argument if we’re not!). Maybe, like Einstein, my skepticism is misplaced. Still, what quantum teleportation is likely good for is making for more secure communications, not teleporting people.

Before moving on from here, let me just quote wikipedia from the quantum teleportation link above:

“Although the name is inspired by the teleportation commonly used in fiction, current technology provides no possibility of anything resembling the fictional form of teleportation.”

Let me consider two other better possibilities from the world of physics before I conclude that teleportation — true movement of objects from one place to another without traversing the space between them — is to be forever left to the world of science fiction rather than science.

First, there’s another quantum effect called quantum tunneling. The basic idea is that a particle has a probability to be found in a certain location governed by its state, and while classically there are some places that a particle shouldn’t be found (e.g., on the other side of a barrier), quantum mechanics give those places a chance. Given enough time, your particle will pop up where it shouldn’t, having “tunneled” through the barrier. Teleportation? Maybe. Movement on quantum spatial scales isn’t well understood in any complete sense.  Exploitable to beam me up? Very doubtful.

The other possibility comes from the other end of physics, from general relativity. There are solutions to Einstein’s field equations that permit space to be connected to itself in unusual ways: wormholes, or Einstein-Rosen bridges as they’ve been called in the scientific literature and the movie Thor. It’s not that general relativity requires such bridges to exist, but they are valid solutions for a theory that has been very successful in explaining observed phenomena involving matter, energy, space, time, and gravity. From Thor to Dune, Event Horizon, and Star Trek, the worm hole is a staple of science fiction. To make it a reality requires the ability to manipulate space in a way we currently have no clue how to do. I won’t say never on this, but I don’t see a predictable and viable path to get from here to there. Not yet.

There may be other ways of simulating teleportation, like the quantum teleportation copier. For instance, being able to move very fast, or to slow down time, can provide the illusion of teleportation. But that’s a topic for another post.

For the forseeable future, teleportation is solidly in the “science fiction” category.  Now, beam me out.



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