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Science Fiction or Fact: Will Teleporters Ever Beam Us Up?
Beats taking the subway. Starfleet officers beam to their destination via the USS Enterprise's transporter on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
Credit: Paramount Television

In this weekly series, Life's Little Mysteries rates the plausibility of popular science fiction concepts.

Want to get from here to there in an instant, even if "there" is miles and miles away? If some science fiction tales have it right, all you'll have to do is flip a switch and presto, you will teleport to your destination.

Perhaps the most famous example of teleportation technology is the transporter on the TV show "Star Trek." The original series' creators devised this shimmery special effect because they didn't have the budget to show a spaceship landing on various planets.

Any chance you will "beaming" up or down anytime soon? Scientifically speaking, teleportation faces some extreme obstacles, ones that even the redoubtable Montgomery Scott would find trouble working around.

"With the teleportation of a large object, you run up against a conceptual 'no,'" said Sidney Perkowitz, a physicist at Emory University in Atlanta.

On the atomic scale, however, teleportation of a sort has already been achieved that could lead to less-fanciful, though still impressive, technologies, such as quantum computers.

A quantum commute

Teleportation research is making strides. Just a couple years ago, scientists set a teleportation record of nearly 10 miles. They did not transport matter, though — rather, they teleported quantum information between photons.

Among the many curiosities of quantum mechanical physics is that particles and even objects as big as tiny diamonds, researchers have discovered, can become "entangled." That is, particles that have physically interacted are often linked in such a way that an action performed on one influences the other, regardless of the distance between them. Albert Einstein indelibly dubbed this bizarre phenomenon as "spooky action at a distance."

The major problem is getting all the atoms in the right place. To match entangled particles (i.e., your body) at both ends of an intended transport, the quantum state of the original must be forwarded to the far end by everyday means of communication, such as a radio wave. In other words, you could not shoot information across vast interstellar distances in an instant.

"A transporter device would never transport you faster than the speed of light," said Edward Farhi, director of the Massachusetts Institute of technology's Center for Theoretical Physics.

Far more problematically, the second half of an entangled particle pair (or pairs) would also have to arrive at its destination before the teleportation procedure could occur. In other words, for Captain Kirk to beam down to a planet's surface via quantum teleportation, all the requisite atoms to re-make him would have to be allocated there anyway.

"There's no free lunch here," said Farhi. "You have to send the whole set of particles that constitute the thing that you want to be teleported."

"Star Trek" transporters do not employ this sort of transmitter and receiver setup; instead, Kirk just steps onto a transporter pad and away he goes, rematerializing at his destination. "You would have to have two pieces of equipment in place – an entanglement generator in point A and an entanglement receiver in point B," said Perkowitz.

These requirements, of course, largely defeat the purpose of using a transporter over conventional means of travel in the first place.

Data overload

The teleportation scheme described sounds as though it would yield a clone at the destination; the body at the origin point would not simply dematerialize in a beautifully sparkling cascade.

Yet the very process of measuring the quantum states of the body's atoms would disrupt them, which could possibly trigger something akin to death. The quantum state of a particle at point A, when measured for the benefit of reconstituting an identical particle at point B, is no longer what it had been before the measurement took place. The source particle's quantum state is "destroyed," said Farhi.

Cataloging the quantum state of every atom in a doomed human to resurrect him or her molecule-by-molecule over yonder is itself a monumental challenge, however. Our bodies are made up of on the order of 10^27 atoms and perhaps 10^45 bits of information — the latter is the equivalent of a billion-trillion-trillion terabyte-capacity computer hard drives.

Gathering these gobs of information and transmitting them by even the broadest of broadband in a practical, timely fashion borders on unbelievable, scientists say.

"The only teleportation that's been observed has been just one quantum parameter, like an electron's spin or the electric field orientation of a photon," said Perkowitz. "It's a binary bit, a zero or a one, left or right, up or down. If you multiply that by the number of molecules in a macroscopic object, the amount of data [that needs to be teleported] is staggering."

Heisenberg wags a finger

To up the ante further yet, in quantum mechanics, there is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Essentially, the more information you have about a particle's position, the less you know about its momentum, and vice versa. [The Funniest Theories in Physics]

In an ever-changing, dynamic system like a cell, let alone the trillions of cells in a human body, nabbing a complete snapshot of all of that simultaneous activity looks impossible.

"You could never make an exact clone of an object and have any complexity to it," said Perkowitz. ("Star Trek" writers dodged that last issue with the transporter system's so-called Heisenberg compensator.)

Worming out

An entirely different, though no less speculative, way in which to teleport would be to somehow selectively rip open the fabric of the universe. Wormholes — theoretical tunnels through space-time — could do the trick.

Scientists' best guess is that the spawning of a wormhole would require exotic physical forces we cannot begin to dream of mastering. In Perkowitz's summation: "Teleportation is impossible in terms of our present knowledge."

For covering distances long and short in the foreseeable future, it appears we must continue to rely on transportation of the old-fashioned variety — vehicular or pedestrian. A shuttlecraft looks to be a good option for alighting upon the surface of a strange new world someday.

"It seems like the simple thing to do to get Kirk from here to there," Farhi said, "is to just send him."

Plausibility score: Physics deeply frowns upon a transporter like that in "Star Trek," and as a sci-fi traveling method, the known means of teleportation look infeasible and unpractical. We therefore give teleportation one out of four possible Rocketboys.