Untangling Teleportation

Published: 12 Feb 2013

Teleportation has long been a mainstay of the science fiction writer’s art. After all, the ability to move matter from one point to another in space and time is always a convenient device for overcoming many of the impracticalities of long distance space travel. It is also a neat way to evade the threat of imminent doom from a bad-tempered alien. The television series Star Trek even gave teleportation its own distinctive sound, with Captain Kirk and his crew being transported to and fro to the accompaniment of electronic sound.

Until 1993, teleportation was the stuff of fantasy. Something that just couldn’t and wouldn’t ever be achieved. Then a team of scientists calculated that teleportation was theoretically possible and that pieces of information they called ‘qubits’ could potentially travel vast distances instantaneously. However, without any practical way of exploring this possibility, teleportation remained very much a matter of sci-fi rather than sci-fact.

But now scientists at Cambridge University, University College London and the University of Gdansk in Poland have come up with the breathtaking suggestion that teleportation could become reality.

To enable them to make this giant leap forward in their thinking, researchers had started by looking at the infinitesimally small. In other words, they had begun to consider the nature of quantum particles such as electrons or protons, and a rather strange property they possess, which physicists call ‘entanglement’.

Entanglement effectively describes a condition in which pairs of quantum particles are intrinsically bound together, or ‘entangled’, no matter how great the distance between them. This means that what happens to one, also happens to the other. The strangeness of this synchronisation between two different and separate things led Einstein to call the phenomenon ‘spooky action at a distance’.

It is the ‘spooky’ connecting mechanism of entanglement that the scientists from Cambridge, London and Poland believe is the key to the teleportation of matter from one place to another.

However, in the short-term, the most practical application for this ground-breaking science is likely to be the development of the quantum computer. This would use quantum mechanics to perform calculations and tasks that would be way beyond the capability of a standard computer, no matter how powerful. Here the entanglements would be used for the transmission of quantum bits of information, or ‘qubits’, rather than much larger objects.

Building a quantum computer is considered one the great challenges of modern physics and the development of this new ‘teleportation protocol’ will help establish a set of rules and instructions that can be used to create a new generation of super-fast machines.

Of course, talk of teleportation is at this stage just theoretical speculation, but here is one intriguing development that will capture the imagination of anyone with even a passing interest in the esoteric technologies of tomorrow. Last year, Chinese scientists announced they had been able to teleport a subatomic particle – a photon – over a distance of 143 km.

So while you may not be hearing anyone utter anything like Captain Kirk’s famous catchphrase ‘Beam me up Scotty’ any time soon, that doesn’t mean it will never happen.


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