Beam Me Up? Teleporting Is Real, Even If Trekkie Transport Isn't | KERA News

Beam Me Up? Teleporting Is Real, Even If Trekkie Transport Isn't

Jul 29, 2015
Originally published on July 29, 2015 6:00 pm

"I have a hard time saying this with a straight face, but I will: You can teleport a single atom from one place to another," says Chris Monroe, a biophysicist at the University of Maryland.

His lab's setup in a university basement looks nothing like the slick transporters that rearrange atoms and send them someplace else on Star Trek. Instead, a couple million dollars' worth of lasers, mirrors and lenses lay sprawled across a 20-foot table.

"What they do in the TV show is, they send the atoms over a long distance," says David Hucul, who recently got his Ph.D. with Monroe. "But, really — if you could build anything, you wouldn't send the atoms."

That's because atoms are big and heavy, and you don't really need them, he explains. The laws of physics say that any atom of carbon is identical to any other atom of carbon. Oxygen, hydrogen and so on: They're all perfect atomic clones.

"The thing that makes us unique is the states of those atoms," Hucul says. "So you'd really send the information — the state of the atom."

The particular arrangement of an atom's electrons, or protons, or neutrons is what makes it special. Now, it's not quite as simple as looking at how everything is placed inside the atom. The laws of quantum mechanics say that "measuring" an atom's information will destroy it.

Instead, researchers have to use this complex system of lasers to transpose some of that information from one atom to another.

In a tiny, steel chamber, they trap one single atom of the element barium. And there's an identical chamber on the other side with another atom of barium in it.

When the team sends the command, the lasers do their work: They suck the delicate quantum information out of atom A and send it into atom B. From the perspective of physics, it's the same as teleporting atom A across the table.

But here's where the reality clashes with the superpower. Imagine you built a human-sized version of this technology. To teleport, you'd need about a billion-billion-billion atoms waiting at your destination that could be arranged into you.

And remember the information isn't copied, it's moved. So, what would happen to all the atoms that used to be you at the start? Chris Monroe says they'd be left behind in a gunky mess: "It'd look like a big pile of Jell-O, I guess," he says.

Also, the system isn't perfect, so there would be a good chance of errors.

"An error probably wouldn't be like your arm is gone," Monroe says. "It'd be something much more disgusting."

All joking aside, this kind of teleportation could never work for people. There's just no way (that we know of) to read out all the information in a billion-billion-billion atoms, and then transport it and put it back somewhere else.

That's not to say one-atom teleportation is useless. Monroe thinks it might be useful in building advanced quantum computers. But for now, big-time teleportation will probably stay on the big screen.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Scientists have been working on teleportation - you know, beaming matter from one place to another the way the crew of the starship Enterprise descends to the surface of mysterious planets in "Star Trek."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

WILLIAM SHATNER: (As Captain Kirk) Enterprise, transporter room energize.

(TRANSPORTER SOUND EFFECTS)

INSKEEP: It's almost like some superpower for superheroes. And it's also real science - sort of. Here's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: So first off, I know true nerd listeners don't consider Captain Kirk a superhero - but close. And speaking of close...

CHRIS MONROE: I have a hard time saying it with a straight face, but I will. You can teleport a single atom from one place to another.

BRUMFIEL: Chris Monroe is a physicist at the University of Maryland. Teleporting just one atom isn't exactly, beam me up. But his team really can do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

BRUMFIEL: That's not a teleporter; it's an elevator. They do it in the basement. In this lab sits a couple million dollars' worth of lasers, mirrors and lenses - and David Hucul.

DAVID HUCUL: We've actually made quite a bit of improvements in teleporting. We could now teleport over a distance of about three feet.

BRUMFIEL: It's taken years just to get this far. Now, the way they do it here is not like "Star Trek."

HUCUL: What they do in the TV show is they send the atoms over a long distance. But really, if you could sort of build anything, you wouldn't send the atoms.

BRUMFIEL: Because the atoms are big and heavy. And you don't really need them. The laws of physics say that any atom of carbon is identical to any other atom of carbon. Oxygen, hydrogen - they're all perfect atomic clones.

HUCUL: The thing that makes us unique is the states of those atoms. So you'd really send the information, the state of the atom.

BRUMFIEL: The information is in the arrangement of the atom's electrons or protons or neutrons. That's what makes it special. And researchers have figured out how to move that information without moving the atoms themselves. In a tiny steel chamber, they trap one single atom of the element barium.

HUCUL: On the other side there's a nearly identical set up. And there's a single atom actually trapped right now in the middle of that chamber.

BRUMFIEL: And when the team sends the command, lasers suck the information out of atom A and scan it into atom B. From the perspective of physics, it's the same as moving atom A across the table - teleportation. But here's where reality clashes with the superpower. Imagine you built a human-sized version of this technology. To teleport, you'd need about a billion, billion, billion atoms waiting at your destination that could be arranged into you. And remember, the information isn't copied. It's moved. So all the atoms that used to be you at the start, Chris Monroe says they'd be left behind in a gunky mess.

MONROE: Iron and, yeah, carbons and calcium and, yeah, it would look like a big pile of Jell-O, I guess.

BRUMFIEL: On the receiving end, there could be errors.

MONROE: An error probably wouldn't be like your arm is gone. That's sort of a very correlated error. It would be something much more disgusting, maybe (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: All joking aside, this kind of teleportation would never work for people. There's just no way that we know to read out all the information in a billion, billion, billion atoms, transport it and put it back together again somewhere else.

MONROE: We don't have a language to describe what a person is, what all the interactions between all the molecules that make up a person - how to keep track of them. I mean, we don't have the machinery.

BRUMFIEL: And we probably never will. That's not to say this kind of one-atom teleportation is useless. Monroe thinks it could help to build advanced computers. But for now, big time teleportation will stay on the big screen. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.