At the invitation of publicists for 20th Century Fox, I recently spoke to a movie audience about teleportation as it appears in fiction and in real physics.. The occasion was a preview of the new science fiction film Jumper, which was being shown several days before the official opening to a group of Microsoft employees in Seattle. Jumper is based on the young adult novels of Steven Gould. Although the film was largely ignored by movie critics, on the following Friday it opened to become the most attended film of the week, chalking up a $32 million gross.
The premise of the film is that some individuals are born with a rare innate talent, the mental ability to create a wormhole and use it to transport themselves (and other people and objects) to elsewhere on the planet, for example, to the flat spot atop the head of the Sphinx in Egypt for a picnic or to the interior of a bank vault to make a quick withdrawal. In the film, the creation of the wormhole is fast and almost seamless, but it leaves behind a “jump scar” that can be reopened by others, if they act quickly, making for tricky interactions between the teleporting “jumpers” and their ancient “paladin” adversaries.
I had the task of connecting this fanciful SF premise to the literature that preceded it and to the real physics that is relevant to teleportation. In this column, I want to explore these connections.
The Literature of Teleportation
Teleportation is nothing new in the literature of religion. The New Testament tells us in John 6:16-21 that shortly after Jesus walked on the waters of the Sea of Galilee to join his disciples in a boat on storm-tossed waters, he teleported the lot of them, boat and all, to the safe harbor of Capernaum, at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. Later, in Acts 8:38-40 we are told that Philip the Evangelist, just after converting an Ethiopian eunuch to Christianity, was teleported from his location on the Gaza-to-Jerusalem road to the town on Azotus, about 15 miles away. Not to be outdone, the Quran describes the phenomenon of Tay al-Ard (folding the Earth), in which you raise your feet and wait while the Earth turns under you until you reach your desired destination.
My own first exposure to the teleportation concept was as a teenager reading the Golden Age science fiction of A. E. Van Vogt in the Null-A series, published in the Astounding Science Fiction magazine of John W. Campbell Jr. Van Vogt described how his protagonist Gilbert Gosseyn used his “double brain” for teleportation, employing a process called “similarization”. Gosseyn’s special nervous system was able to memorize the structure of a patch of ground or floor to "twenty-decimal similarity" (whatever that means). After that, as long as the memory of that location remained sharp in his auxiliary memory, Gosseyn could teleport himself to that memorized spot whenever he wanted. That made Van Vogt’s convoluted plot lines move along very nicely.
In Arthur Bester’s classic The Stars My Destination, adepts routinely teleport over distances up to 1,000 miles by a process called “to jaunte”. The culture would like to jaunte over interplanetary distances if they could just learn how, and this drives the plot. The post-humans in Dan Simmons recent novels Illium and Olympos routinely use personal quantum teleportation. In Ian M. Banks’ Culture series, wormhole-based teleportation is widely used. Michael Crichton’s 1999 novel and subsequent film Timeline describe an experiment in large-scale quantum teleportation that unexpectedly developed into a time machine connecting to the medieval France of 1357. On the recent fantasy side, Harry Potter and his magical friends have several ways of implementing teleportation: using apparition, floo powder, and port-keys to bypass the bother of normal travel.
Teleportation and Extra-Dimensional Physics.
The notion of other dimensions has been a recurrent theme in science fiction, from Wells and Lovecraft to Robert Heinlein's Number of the Beast, (in which two extra time dimensions, tau and teh, give access to alternate universes) and James P. Hogan's Genesis Machine, in which two extra spatial dimensions (hi-space) are exploited for instant communications, gravity control, etc.
In 1919 the German physicist and mathematician Theodor Kaluza noticed that when he solved Einstein's equations for general relativity using five dimensions instead of four, Maxwell's electromagnetic equations popped right out. The extra dimension added the electromagnetic force to the standard theory of gravity. The question was, how could there be such an extra dimension that had escaped our notice. In 1926, Oskar Klein pointed out that if this dimension was “rolled up”, i.e. connected back on itself on a very small distance scale, it would be invisible, yet could provide electromagnetism. This Klein-Kaluza notion of hidden rolled-up extra dimensions has more recently been used by string theorist to describe not only the electromagnetic force, but also the strong and weak forces, providing promise of a “theory of everything” that describes all particles, forces, and interactions in the same framework.
One “side effect” of such hidden dimensions is the possibility of shadow matter (sometimes called mirror matter), an additional type of matter that would interact normally with its own matter-type but would “ignore” ordinary matter, interacting with it only through the gravitational interaction. Thus, in a sense, such extra “hidden” dimensions may allow the existence of parallel universes to which one can “teleport”. Changing normal matter to shadow matter looks like teleportation between parallel universes. My own hard SF novel Twistor used this concept as a premise. Apparatus in a University of Washington experimental physics laboratory unexpectedly rotated normal matter into shadow matter, and vice versa, causing objects and people to disappear and to be transported to an earthlike shadow world. Therefore, extra dimensions are one physics-based way of accomplishing teleportation.
Quantum teleportation, which has received a lot of discussion by science writers lately, is not about making a quantum jump to another location. Instead, it is a quantum mechanically valid solution to the problem of how to make a precise duplicate copy of a quantum state at another location. According to the rules of quantum mechanics, you cannot just measure a quantum system and use the measurement results to reconstruct the system somewhere else, because (a) the act of measurement changes the system measured, and (b) the uncertainty principle prevents simultaneous measurement of “conjugate quantities” like position and momentum that would be needed for such reconstruction. Another quantum rule prevents you from “cloning” multiple copies of a quantum system, so any duplication requires destruction of the original.
The procedure for quantum teleportation requires the following steps: (a) Create a pair of “blank” quantum systems that are “entangled”, i.e., separated but linked through some conservation law; (b) mix the “teleportee” with one of these entangled states and make a number of measurements on the mixed system; (c) transmit the measurement results by a normal communication channel to the location of the entangled twin system; and (d) perform a set of transformations on the entangled twin system based on the received measurement results. If this procedure is carried out correctly, you should have produced an exact duplicate of the original quantum state in the new location. Note that the mixing and measuring have destroyed the original system.
Essentially, one is using Nature’s private entanglement channel to send most of the information needed to reproduce the original system. The number of measurements needed for such teleportation is the logarithm of the degree of system complexity, which keeps the needed number of measurements fairly small. For example, to teleport a quantum system consisting of 10,000 moles of atoms (about the equivalent of one person) to an identical state somewhere else, you would need to do only about 195 measurements on the mixed system.
I should emphasize that unlike extra-dimensional and wormhole physics, quantum teleportation is not conjecture but real physics. It has been demonstrated in many laboratories, with apparatus that actually teleports single particles and photons. Moreover, in 2006 Eugene Polzik and his team at Denmark’s Niels Bohr Institute reported teleporting a very complex atomic system containing about 1012 atoms to a location half a meter away.
So how would you actually quantum-teleport people (a la. The Star Trek Transporter)? I’m not sure. The problem, on the human level, is what to use for the pair of entangled blank quantum systems, on which the characteristics of the teleported person must be imposed. You’d need an entangled pair of “blank human beings” (perhaps clones of Mit Romney?) Then maybe you’d get a huge blender, put in the subject and one blank, mix the states, make 195 or so measurements on the mixture, transmit the results, and the transform the other blank 195 times, until the teleported person pops out. But I don’t think I’d volunteer to be the first test subject. There are some engineering details here than need to be worked out.
This brings to wormhole teleportation, which is the premise of Jumper. In 1935 Albert Einstein and his colleague Nathan Rosen discovered that the formalism of general relativity (our current standard model for gravity) has solutions involving “teacup handle” curved space objects that could connect one region of space-time to a completely separate region. They suggested that fundamental particles (electrons, protons, etc.) might actually be such objects, with lines of electric flux threaded through them to give them electric charges. At the time, these objects were called “Einstein-Rosen Bridges”, but they are now called “wormholes”. (My hard SF novel, Einstein’s Bridge, derives its title from this antique name for wormholes.)
In 1962, Wheeler and Fuller showed that such wormholes were much too massive to be fundamental particles, and that they were so unstable that if one happened to pop out of the vacuum, it would close up before even a single photon could be shot through it. However, in 1988, Kip Thorne and his student Mike Morris showed that wormholes could be stabilized and that, using relativistic time dilation, they could be converted into time machines, “time holes” that connect one time to another in the same place. (See several of my columns AV on wormholes for the details of this process.)
The two mouths of Thorne-Morris wormholes are subject to a phenomenon called “back reaction”, a manifestation of conservation laws. If an object of mass m passes through, the entrance mouth must gain its mass-energy (E=mc2) and the exit mouth must lose the same energy. The same is true of other conserved quantities: momentum, angular momentum, and electric charge. Perhaps the best solution to this problem would be so send some “ballast object” with the same mass, etc., simultaneously through the wormhole in the opposite direction.
The Jumper film suggests that the human teleporters are creating a wormhole and passing through it to another location without anything going in the opposite direction. Back reaction would seem to create great problems for this scenario, because, unless the mass-energy at the wormhole entrance was somehow contained, the wormhole mouth would explode like an H-bomb. There were also some violations of momentum back reaction involving the teleportation of a fast moving car and a double-decker bus.
However, despite these physics problems I found that Jumper was an enjoyable film, and I did not find that my suspension of disbelief was stretched to the breaking point. It was fun.
C. H. Bennett, G. Brassard, C. Crépeau, R. Jozsa, A. Peres, and W. K Wootters, Phys. Rev. Letters 70, 1895 (1993).
Wormholes & Time Machines:
Michael S. Morris, Kip S. Thorne, and Ulvi Yurtsever, Physical Review Letters 61, 1446 (1988).
SF Novels by John Cramer: my two hard SF novels, Twistor and Einstein's Bridge, are newly released as eBooks by Book View Cafe and are available at : http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/?s=Cramer .
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