Ask Glenn

Will we just teleport from place to place in the future?

Believe it or not, scientists have managed to ‘teleport’ some things already. But as for ‘beaming up’, Star Trek-style, either there’s no hope at all... or we’re a very long way off.

He was here a second ago

What do you mean ‘we’ve done it already’? When? Where?

In 1998, a group of physicists at the California Institute of Technology successfully teleported a photon (or a particle of light) over a distance of one metre. Then in 2004, an Australian group topped that by teleporting a whole stream of photons, in the form of a laser beam, from one side of their laboratory to the other.

Really? How did they do that?

They did it using pairs of particles, through a strange process called ‘quantum entanglement’. Basically, two photons were ‘entangled’ so that they shared the same information, then one of them was sent through a cable to another point. Then they used a laser to change the information on one of the photons, which was copied (or teleported) to the other one immediately – due to the spooky entanglement effect. Finally, they destroyed the original photon, leaving only the copy behind. So at the end of it all, the original photon was gone, and an exact copy existed in another place. Voila – teleported particle.

Pah. That doesn’t sound much like teleporting to me. That just sounds like copying something and getting rid of the original one. That’s cheating, isn’t it?

Well, if you think about it, that’s all you’re really doing when you teleport something. To ‘beam’ something from one place to another, you have to turn the solid matter of the particle (paper clip, person or whatever) into information. Then you send that information to a destination – by sending it down an electrical cable, or transmitting it in the form of radio waves. Then the signal is received, and the information is used to create an exact copy at the other end. So now it’s both here and there, and to complete the process you destroy the original object, so it isn’t here any more – it’s there instead. Get it?

Would that really work?

In theory – yes, it would. At the moment, teleporting solid objects (rather than beams of light) around seems highly unlikely. But the experts say that even if we can’t do it now, teleporting an atom is theoretically possible. From there, we could progress to groups of atoms, and onwards to whole objects made of atoms, like paperclips. That said, many scientists, doubt that we’ll ever get that far. They say that this ‘teleporting particle’ effect might only ever be useful for new kinds of computing and communication technology.

OK, but if we could do solid objects, would it work on a person?

Probably not, for two big reasons. The first one is that there’s just too much information in the human body.

What do you mean?

Solid objects are made of atoms, and in order to copy or teleport an entire object, you would first have to get all the information about every atom in the object. A typical steel paperclip contains about one thousand billion trillion iron and carbon atoms, ordered into a simple, cage-like formation. The human body, however, contains around seven thousand trillion trillion atoms – seven billion times more than a paperclip. What’s more, there are many more types of atom (including hydrogen, oxygen, calcium, sulphur and many others), and they’re arranged in infinitely more complex ways than the simple, repeating cage-like structure of the paperclip.

Take all this into account, and you have to see that trying to measure every bit of information about all of these bits would be practically impossible. Get it wrong, and you’d end up with your leg sticking out of your head, or your organs inside out. That’s the first reason why teleportation wouldn’t work on people.

So what’s the other reason?

The second reason is that the ‘destroy the old copy’ bit of teleportation would tend to, err... kill you.

That’s no good.

No, it’s not. I think I’d rather take the bus.