Teleportation is one of the key technologies of the Star Trek franchise. In the shows, it allows Kirk, Spock and any unfortunate Red Shirt who goes with them to beam down to a planetary surface without the use of shuttles, spacecraft or any physical means of transportation. It truthfully seems like a pretty sweet technology, and one I wish I had during the 10 hour drive from Las Vegas to Rexburg, Idaho. But how realistic is this technology? How likely are we every going to be able to say: “Beam me up Scotty?” Well folks, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to say extremely unlikely.
Theoretically teleportation is accomplished by turning a person into beam of atoms and molecules and then using that beam like a radio signal to put somebody somewhere else. In essence I find two major problems with this technology and a few minor ones. The first is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Basically what this says is that on a quantum level, the more precisely one value (like speed) is measured, the less precisely another (like position) is measured. It introduces uncertainty into quantum physics (simultaneously making many physicist jump off cliffs out of frustration), or the physics of subatomic particles. You may be asking yourself well what does this have to do with teleportation? Well, when we atomize you and teleport you to the planet Vulcan, we begin to get uncertainties in our measurements, a la Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. When teleporting, we can lose track of parts of your body. This is due to one of the interesting results of Heisenberg’s principle which shows that every particle has a probability of suddenly shooting off to the end of the galaxy or annihilating with an anti-particle and disappearing. When a person is teleported, they end up become multiple little particles each with that probability. With billions if not trillions of particles in your body, chances are some are going to fly off into space, meaning that you may in fact pop up on Vulcan without a hand, or a toe, or maybe a thyroid gland. More than likely though, certain elements and molecules will not make it to Vulcan with you, meaning you may die of a hormone deficiency a few days later.
Now you may say, it’s pretty unlikely that all of your hand particles suddenly decide to jump ship, it’ll probably be only a few molecules here or there. Ok, I’ll conceit that little idea, but try to rationalize your way out of the next argument Spock. TELEPORTATION KILLS YOU. If you really stopped and thought about it, teleportation involves tearing apart the molecules in your body and condensing them into a little beam then shooting them across space. You are completely atomized when you are teleported, ergo, you are now dead. There is really no way around this fact other than certain philosophical arguments as to the nature of the soul. But without delving into arguments to that nature, let’s look at two other engineering challenges that stop teleportation as we see it in Star Trek.
If you remember the new 2009 remake of Star Trek you’ll remember a scene where Spock teleports to the rocky mountains of Vulcan to save his family. This type of teleporting gives a few problems. First of all, in order to teleport somebody to another place, you would have to teleport them to another machine. Think of a jar of water. If you want to get the water in the jar to another jar across a parking lot what are you going to do? Probably suck all the water out of the jar and shoot it in a high pressure beam right? This way, all the water makes it into the jar. Now remove the jar and what happens? The water goes splat all over the sidewalk. A similar thing would happen to Spock as he got to the planetary surface. The water is his subatomic particles. The jar is the normal configuration of his body. Without another machine to catch him and reassemble him, Spock would suddenly just become cosmic radiation. Fortunately for Spock he probably would have done this before the planetary surface. Space is filled with various rays, beams and particles. In fact, scientists have proved that “empty” space is actually filled with particles and anti-particles colliding and annihilating each other. Any one of those could knock out some of Spock’s particles. In fact, this would probably happen a lot.
Scientists have been able to “teleport” some subatomic particles over short distances. It is not a direct teleportation, rather it relies on quantum entanglement of electrons and other particles to produce the same particle at two places at once. Nothing moved, it was just copied in another place. Kind of like Space Xerox. But, we are still a long ways off from even transporting molecules, much less human beings. For the reasons outlined above, human teleportation (like the type we see in Star Trek) will never happen. However, it truly is a great way to die.