Soon we could beam him up – and all in one piece

The Observer
April 9 2000

IT IS 8.55am. You have just staggered from your bed, showered, shrugged on your clothes and are ready for a vital 9am appointment – 40 miles away. You walk calmly to the local Inner Glasgow Quantum Transport Authority station and enter a booth. Lights pulse, and within seconds you find yourself in Edinburgh, having been dematerialised and reconstructed in the flickering of an atomic oscillation.

This is teleportation. One day it may help us to travel, painlessly, instantly and without encountering mobile phone users or tedious places (like Falkirk) en route.

It is science fiction, of course or at least when it comes to moving large objects or living creatures. However, scientists have made surprising progress on the design of teleporters. They have discovered how to zap photons – individual particles of light – around laboratories.

Anton Zeilinger of the Institute of Experimental Physics at Vienna University states in the latest issue of Scientific American. ‘Teleportation has become a lab reality – for photons’.

Such work could nevertheless have revolutionary consequences, particularly in the development of ranges of computers which would teleport – rather than push – photons round their components, enabling them to run thousands of times faster than current devices.

Most people think of teleportation as the means by which Scotty beamed up Captain Kirk, though this was only introduced to Star Trek because Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the series, wanted to avoid simulating expensive spaceship landings.

To make such a teleporter, an engineer would have to develop a scanner to extract every scrap of information about a person’s atomic and sub-atomic makeup; beam it to a destination; and then use it as a recipe to reassemble that individual from atoms available there.

Great fun, said scientists, but utterly impractical. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – which says it is impossible to know every precise quantum measurement of the atoms that make up an object ruled it out. However, researchers have now exploited a phenomenon called ‘entanglement’, in which particles that are linked together and which are described by the same quantum mathenmatical expressions, are known to have the same properties. Fiddle with one, and you will change the other – even if they have been placed at opposite sides of the universe.

Zeilinger and his colleagues have created pairs of photons and changed the state of one, producing an immediate alteration in the other. In other words, they have found out how to induce instant change in particles – at a distance.

However, to teleport any large object, it would have to be in a ‘pure quantum state’, says Zeilinger, and for anything bigger than a photon, such purity is currently unobtainable.

Zeilinger is confident of progress but instant transporting of matter is likely to remain the province of the electronic engineer for many years. By then, scientists may be able to create teleporters at the cores of computers of immense power: still not science fiction, but getting close.



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