A flash of light, perhaps a puff of smoke… but teleportation shall remain nothing but a dream

Every year the University of Leicester publishes a Journal of Physics Special Topics in which fourth year physics students are encouraged to publish papers on physics and tangential subjects of interest to them. It’s a fascinating journal and encourages students to apply their skills outside traditional laboratory and theoretical modes of thinking.

You can find it here.

Here are just a few of the 65 articles in the most recent addition:

  • Breaking Bad Physics

    In the TV series Breaking Bad the protagonist’s use an electromagnet in a truck causing the vehicle to tip over. This article investigates the likelihood of this occurring and finds that it’s unlikely to happen.

  • Chitty Bang Bang

    The film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang tells the story of a man and his incredible car. One of the things his car was capable of is the ability to fly. This paper investigates the feasibility of such a vehicle based on the film specifications. In reality the car as it is seen in the film would not be able to fly but by increasing the wing area from 10m2 to 56.99m2 the car would be able to take-off within its normal performance parameters.

  • James’ Giant Peach Transport Across the Atlantic

    In Roald Dahl’s children’s classic James and the Giant Peach a magically enlarged fruit travels across the Atlantic Ocean, partly floated on the water and partly airlifted by a flock of seagulls. Through examining the buoyancy and modelling the seagulls as aerofoils it has been found that although the initial part of the journey is possible, given a sufficiently hollow peach, James would have to tether approximately two and a half million Common Gulls, rather than the 501 as described in the book.

The article that most captured my attention, however, was one on teleportation; not the bland quantum teleportation of the state of one small physical system to a remote location (more of a communications feat than anything) that has been the topic of much real research these days, but rather the whole-body teleportation we’ve come to dream about from the Star Trek television series and films – the sending of a human being from one place to another in an instant.

The paper is simply titled Teleportation and was authored by Declan Roberts, James Nelms, David Starkey, and Suzanne Thomas. You should read the paper at this point since it it very short and quite accessible to anyone with a passing grade of high school physics or knowledge of data and signal compression theory. You do not have to read it in order to understand the discussion to follow, however.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the technological explanation of the transporter seen in the Star Trek series it involves converting the matter that makes up the transported object and converting it to pure energy and subsequently sending that energy through space to be reassembled elsewhere. This is theoretically possible since Einstein showed the equivalence of matter and energy in his famous equation, E = mc2. The process of converting the matter into energy also has to record the precise layout of all that matter for the remote reconstruction when the energy is converted back to matter. So along with sending all that energy across space and to the remote location, the information of how to reassemble the converted energy also must be sent. It is the communication of all this data that the students calculated in their study. In fact, when you think about it, all you would really ever want to do is to send this data to the remote transporter and have a massive energy bank at the remote site for creating the ethereal traveler. It would save you the enormous expense of sending all that energy through space. Thus at a minimum a working transporter only needs to send the instructions for how to reassemble the transported object.

Beginning with the biological fact that every cell in the human body contains the necessary code to generate every other cell, they realized that they only needed to send along the data contained in one cell. Also, because the human mind consists not only of the cells making up our brains but also the established neural connections and patterns that have evolved among them – in essence our entire life experience – they estimate the size of the data contained in the mind for its reconstruction as well. Finally, using the best known data encryption techniques possible they conclude that to teleport one human being would require the sending of 4.55 x 1042 bits of data.  This is 5.7 x 1023 exabytes. The entirety of the World Wide Web has been estimated to be of the order of 750 exabytes. This means that the data contained in encoding a human being is equivalent to roughly 8 x 1020, or 800,000,000,000,000,000,000 Word Wide Webs. It is a staggering amount of data.

Next they discuss how long it would require to send such data. They account for the fact that no signal loss nor data corruption can be tolerated. This would lead to transporter accidents in the parlance of the Star Trek series. Whoops! Using the fastest, most efficient means of sending data wirelessly (still limited by the speed of light) they find that sending all that data would take 4.85 x 1015 years. This is longer than the present age of the universe (13.7 x 109 years) by a million times! Our traveler would arrive fully alive and in the same state that she left for the trip. However, the entire universe will have changed in that time and it is highly unlikely that there would be anyone around to greet her.

Lastly they look at the energy cost just to send the data. This is separate from the energy required to reassemble the traveler. As it turns out, it would require 5.76MW-hours, equivalent to the electricity used by roughly 2,000 homes for one hour. For further comparison, it requires roughly 15MW-hours of energy to send the Space Shuttle into orbit and back. So there is some savings to be gained if transportation were to become feasible.

Needless to say, they conclude that the implementation of transporter technology is going to be highly unlikely in our lifetime or that of any future generation given the currently available knowledge of how the universe works.  It is very interesting that this contradicts comments made by celebrity physicist Michio Kaku in 2008 where he predicted that such technology will be invented “within 100 years.”*

Since we’re in for a long wait until science finds a way around these limitations this could be a rare chance to tackle the ethical and philosophical implications of such technology before it becomes available. In the early 70s up to modern times many deep thinkers have addressed this. My personal favorite is the mind philosopher Daniel Dennett. In fact, in 2001 he teamed up with Douglas Hofstadter and released a book of essays on such topics, The Mind’s I Fantasies And Reflections On Self & Soul, that included the works of many other famous authors. It’s highly entertaining and full of deep philosophical issues such as murdering someone locally in order to bring them back to life remotely, and what happens if this goes awry. Check it out if you can.

*Going Where No One Has Gone Before,Gary Sledge, Discovery Channel Magazine Issue 3, ISSN 1793572-5.


Amateur photographer, cyclist, and beer brewer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.

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