Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Beam me up Scotty!... or why everyone on Star Trek is a clone

While I'm still holding out for a car that drives itself (I don't just mean to park by itself but to also navigate the roads) to come on the market, I daydream constantly about having the ability of teleportation. Just imagine--you blink and you're at your destination a second later. Awesome right? No waiting in traffic. No having to pay for gas or insurance. But best of all, you'd be able to sleep and still be at work in time.

I was watching Jumper on Saturday night and if you haven't watched it before, the main character can teleport himself anywhere. Cool right? That is, when he's not being hunted. The idea of teleportation isn't a new one. While in Jumper it was an innate psychic ability that has existed for centuries, in Star Trek, the characters use a machine, a transporter that gets them to one place to another by dispersing the molecules in their bodies to another location.

But is it possible? Can a person successfully disappear and then reappear intact and alive?

Historically, the earliest mention of teleportation can be found in religious texts. Teleportation then found mention in a 1877 in a science fiction story by Edward Page Mitchell and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a novel on it called The Disintegration Machine. The word teleportation, however, wasn't coined until 1931 by author Charles Fort in his book, Lo! Since then, it has not only been used in Star Trek, but Stargate Atlantis and even Heroes and movies like the Fly and Jumper. While the ability varies depending on what you're watching (psychic ability vs some kind of technology that allows it), the same physics would apply.

While Newton's theory states that teleportation is impossible (objects don't move until they are pushed and cannot suddenly disappear and then reappear somewhere else), in 1925 Erwin Schrodinger and colleagues developed the quantum theory, overthrowing Newton's laws after 250 years. After analyzing the properties of atoms, they discovered that electrons acted like waves and could make quantum leaps in their seemingly chaotic motion within the atom.

In order for this to make sense, I need to explain what is called an EPR (Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen) experiment. In 1935 they proposed that if two electrons are vibrating in unison they remain in wavelike synchronization even if separated by distance because of an invisible Schrodinger wave connecting both of them. If something happens to one electron, some of the information is immediately transmitted to the other in what is called quantum entanglement that was thought to happen faster than the speed of light. Because Einstein didn't think anything could move faster than the speed of light, he thought he'd proven that quantum theory was wrong. But in 1980 Alan Aspect and colleagues performed an experiment that measured the spin of photons and agreed with the quantum theory.

Everything changed in 1993, when scientists had their first success, proving that it was physically possible to teleport objects, at least on an atomic level using the EPR experiment. A research team at IBM, led by Charles Bennett, confirmed that quantum teleportation (the transmission of characteristics--that is, the quantum state of a particular photon, or particle of light--from one place to another) was possible, but only if the original object was destroyed. While the original was destroyed, every distinguishing feature is re-created at the new location. Even now physicists have only been able to teleport particles of light and atoms over a distance.

In 2002, researchers in Australia successfully teleported a laser beam, but the most recent successful teleportation experiment happened in 2006 at the Niels Bohr Institute where Dr. Eugene Polzik and his team teleported information stored in a laser beam into a cloud of atoms.

While we have had some successes, w
e are far away from creating anything that could transport a human from one spot to another. From HowStuffWorks, "For a person to be transported, a machine would have to be built that could analyze all the atoms that make up the human body. The machine would then have to send this information to another location, where the person's body would be reconstructed with exact precision. Molecules couldn't be even a millimeter out of place, lest the person arrive with some severe neurological or physiological defect." If we go with what happened above where information was copied in the attached, electron, we would have to assume that the machine would act like a fax machine and duplicate the person on the receiving end, possibly destroying the original, thereby "killing" the person.

While teleportation isn't possible today, it would make an interesting sci-fi novel. If the original person was destroyed and a clone made, would that clone be EXACTLY like the original. Sure, it would have the same memories and emotions and whatnot, but what if things go wrong? Is the the person really dead since he/she has been cloned? What do you think?


  1. Absolutely fascinating post. As a science geek and the wife of a Trekker, I really enjoyed this post (even if it tread dangerously close to my nemesis - physics). Especially after reading this, is it any wonder that Star Trek's Bones/Leonard McCoy never wanted to 'beam' anywhere? Just one molecule out of place and it's game over...

  2. Reading this had me thinking of that movie, The Prestige. In fact, I think it perfectly illustrates the theory you're describing, lol. Then again, Tesla was freaking brilliant, so hey...maybe it's based on something he was working on! Thanks for making me feel smart enough to follow this post! LOL!