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When will we be able to teleport?




Photo: Lee Bennett, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Teleporting is very useful to the science fiction genre (e.g. Star Trek), as it helps giant spaceships overcome a big problem. Without it, every time anyone wanted to board the ship or leave it to visit a planet, the captain would have to land it gently and then burn through loads of fuel taking off again. A sci-fi teleporter works by scanning a person or object to identify the exact position of all their atoms. It then sends that information to another location, where the traveller rematerialises as if by magic. That’s all well and good, but the number of atoms in the human body is about 10 to the power 28. In other words, a 1 followed by 28 zeroes. Or 10,000 septillions. To put that in perspective, all the information contained in all the printed works in the world only clocks up 18 zeroes. How exactly a piece of technology could transfer all that data to another place at top speed is anyone’s guess.
If, rather than transporting information about the atoms, the teleporter actually sent them flying to the new location as beams of energy, we’d come up against similar problems. If you work out the energy equivalent of a person – using the formula E=mc2 (energy = mass x the speed of light squared) – you’ll see that he or she represents an absolutely enormous amount of energy. As things stand, no one has the slightest idea how to go about teleporting all of that.
Another mystery is how exactly the technology would dematerialise the traveller in the outbound teleporter and then rematerialise them in the inbound one. If a teleporter was really going to work, it would have to heat the transfer matter to temperatures a million times hotter than the centre of the sun. It would therefore consume an unimaginably large amount of energy every time you used it. Taken together, all these problems show how far away we are from the day we can travel like Captain Kirk. If it ever does become possible, we can say with almost absolute certainty that no one alive today will be around to see it.
Another issue with teleporting technology is that, i it really did exist, it could double up as a cloning machine, and who knows what the consequences of that would be. Viewed this way, the issue isn’t just about working out if and when teleporting could be possible. We should also think about whether we even want this kind of technology in our lives. In one Star Trek episode, a teleporter malfunctions and ends up making two Kirks (one good, one evil) by mistake. Teleporting living things raises all manner of ethical issues. Is a human more than the sum of his or her physical components? What happens to our thoughts, personality and (if it exists) our soul when we teleport? In the world of Star Trek, there are religions whose followers refuse to teleport for exactly these kinds of reasons.

Henning Krause from the division Communications and Media Relations from the Helmholtz Association answered this question.