Teleportation is the transfer of matter or energy from one location to another without either of them crossing the distance in the traditional physical sense. When Captain James T. Kirk of the "Star Trek" TV series and movies first told Starship Enterprise engineer, Montgomery "Scotty" Scott to "beam me up" in 1967, little did the actors know that by 1993, IBM scientist Charles H. Bennett and colleagues would propose a scientific theory that suggested the real-life possibility of teleportation.
By 1998, teleportation became reality when physicists at the California Institute of Technology quantum-teleported a particle of light from one location to another in a lab without it physically crossing the distance between the two locations. While some similarities do exist between science fiction and science fact, the teleportation in the real world differs greatly from its fictional roots.
Teleportation Roots: Quantum Physics and Mechanics
The branch of science that led to that first teleportation in 1998 gets its roots from the father of quantum mechanics, German physicist Max Planck. His work in 1900 and 1905 in thermodynamics led him to the discovery of distinct packets of energy he called "quanta." In his theory, now known as Planck's constant, he developed a formula that describes how quanta, at a subatomic level, perform as both particles and waves.
Many rules and principles in quantum mechanics at the macroscopic level describe these two types of occurrences: the dual existence of waves and particles. Particles, being localized experiences, convey both mass and energy in movement. Waves, representing delocalized events, spread across space-time, such as light waves in the electromagnetic spectrum, and carry energy but not mass as they move. For example, the balls on a pool table – objects that you can touch – behave like particles, while ripples on a pond behave like waves where there is "no net transport of water: hence no net transport of mass," writes Stephen Jenkins, physics professor at the University of Exeter in the U.K.
Fundamental Rule: Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle
One fundamental rule of the universe, developed by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, now known as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, says that there exists an intrinsic doubt affiliated with knowing the exact location and thrust of any individual particle. The more you can measure one of the particle's attributes, such as thrust, the more unclear the information about the particle's location becomes. In other words, the principle says you can't know both states of the particle at the same time, much less know the multiple states of many particles at once. On its own, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle makes the idea of teleportation impossible. But this is where quantum mechanics gets weird, and it's due to physicist Erwin Schrödinger's study of quantum entanglement.
Spooky Action at a Distance and Schrödinger's Cat
When summarized in the simplest of terms, quantum entanglement, which Einstein called "spooky action at a distance," essentially says that measurement of one entangled particle affects the measurement of the second entangled particle even if there's a wide distance between the two particles.
Schrödinger described this phenomenon in 1935 as a "departure from classical lines of thought" and published it in a two-part paper in which he called the theory "Verschränkung," or entanglement. In that paper, in which he also spoke of his paradoxical cat – alive and dead at the same time until observation collapsed the existence of the cat's state into it being either dead or alive – Schrödinger suggested that when two separate quantum systems become entangled or quantumly linked because of a previous encounter, an explanation of the features of one quantum system or state is not possible if it does not include the characteristics of the other system, no matter the spatial distance between the two systems.
Quantum entanglement forms the basis of quantum teleportation experiments scientists conduct today.
Quantum Teleportation and Science Fiction
Teleportation by scientists today relies upon quantum entanglement, so that what happens to one particle happens to the other instantaneously. Unlike science fiction, it doesn't involve physically scanning an object or a person and transmitting it to another location, because it's currently impossible to create a precise quantum copy of the original object or person without destroying the original.
Instead, quantum teleportation represents moving a quantum state (like information) from one atom to a different atom across a considerable difference. Scientific teams from the University of Michigan and the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland reported in 2009 that they successfully completed this particular experiment. In their experiment, information from one atom moved to another a meter apart. Scientists held each atom in separate enclosures during the experiment.
What the Future Holds for Teleportation
While the idea of transporting a person or an object from the Earth to a distant location in space remains in the realm of science fiction for the moment, quantum teleportation of data from one atom to another has potential for applications in multiple arenas: computers, cybersecurity, the Internet and more.
Basically any system that relies on transmitting data from one location to another could see data transmissions occur much faster than people can begin to imagine. When quantum teleportation results in data moving from one location to another without any time lapse because of superposition – the data existing in both the dual states of both 0 and 1 in a computer's binary system until measurement collapses the state into 0 or 1 – data moves faster than the speed of light. When this happens, computer technology will undergo a whole new revolution.
- Analog: Science Fiction and Fact Magazine: All About Teleportation
- Law and Business Review of the Americas: Telephonic Credit: The Next Generation of Branchless Banking in Mexico
- California Institute of Technology: Caltech Physicists Achieve First Bona-fide Quantum Teleportation
- University of Pittsburgh: Einstein on the Completeness of Quantum Theory
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Quantum Entanglement and Information
- University of Maryland: Joint Quantum Institute: First Teleportation Between Distant Atoms
- Florida State University: Max Planck
About the Author
As a journalist and editor for several years, Laurie Brenner has covered many topics in her writings, but science is one of her first loves. Her stint as Manager of the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in California's gold country served to deepen her interest in science which she now fulfills by writing for online science websites. Brenner is also a published sci-fi author. She graduated from San Diego's Coleman College in 1972.