Science in Science-Fiction: Teleportation and Matter Transmission

Posted on Tuesday, October 1st, 2013 at 00:08

The first use of the word Teleportation is by Charles Fort in his book Wild Talents (1932), but the way he used it could be interpreted to mean motion at a distance, which we would now call “Telekinesis” or “Psychokinesis”. Certainly the concept of instantaneous travel is far older, appearing in the Arabian Nights as a power of the Djinn. During the 1950s, however science-fiction writers stole the word to mean this specific form of Telekinesis that meant the ability to move yourself from place to place (usually instantly), perhaps most famously as the mutant ability of the X-man Nightcrawler. The concept truly passed into pop culture in the 1960s when Gene Rodenberry was told that it would be too expensive to land the Enterprise on a planet once, never mind each week. His solution was a cross-fade and some glitter, the “Transporter” and the phrase “Beam me up, Scotty” passed into common parlance.

Possibly the most famous cross-fade and swirl of glitter in the galaxy

Possibly the most famous cross-fade and swirl of glitter in the galaxy

In written Sci-Fi the history is a little more convoluted, certainly by the time Lan Wright wrote “Transmat” in 1960 the matter transmission concept was far from original. In 1877 Edward Page Mitchell’s “The Man without a Body” had used the concept (with the obligatory calamitous interruption of re-assembly due to the batteries running out after his head has teleported), and Clement Fezandie’s “The Secret of Electrical Transmission” (1922). The real birth of the teleporter, for me though occurred in 1957, with the original George Langelaan’s short story “The Fly” which was made into a movie. The story has all the elements of good science-fiction, nerdy protagonist, utterly impossible, but still believable premise, and a human-fly hybrid (although the 50s version is not in the league of ickiness that the80s remake brought with its cautionary tale of gene-splicing body horror). Philip K. Dick got in on the action with his 1964 “The Unteleported Man”. So what about teleportation, is it ever going to be scientifically viable?

Quantum Teleportation

Quantum Teleportation

The idea of Quantum teleportation is simply that all the details of matter can be read and broadcast (via traditional means), the idea being that by reading matter at one end in this way you can then write matter into the same state at the other end, technically this is not teleportation at all, but is actually just a form of entangled communication. It is very unlikely that this technology will ever beam a person anywhere (I’d never say impossible, as you can never tell what experiments will suddenly unfold the secrets of the universe). I don’t agree with the normal reasons given as to why this technology won’t be beaming us anytime soon though. Scientists look at how much information is contained within the human body and announce rather simplistically that even if we could accurately read that much information, the time taken to transmit it would take “Quadrillions of years” (which is a lot even on the short count scale). Which would be true if we could only transmit data in sequence, however if you broadcast two pieces of data simultaneously then you cut the time in half immediately, and why stop at two simultaneous ‘transmissions’? Also it assumes that you need to know the exact positions of every electron and atom of the person (which you probably don’t) and large amounts of data could be certainly be compressed in terms of templates and general rules. Other “failures” include the energy required (which would be very great, at least equal to the mass of the person transported, and that’s assuming a perfectly efficient system – but energy is always a problem), the amount of computational power/time required which some serious physicists have suggested could be greater than the current age of the universe (again they consider the calculations can only be performed in sequence and refuse to consider Moore’s or Kryder’s laws in this prediction), there are even people who claim the whole system is impossible because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle (which states that you can know exactly where the atoms are, or you can know how they are moving exactly, but you can’t know both – what this particular linguistic formulation fails to identify is the fact that you can know both to a limited degree of precision, actually to more than enough precision that no Heisenberg Compensators are required). The main reason this technology is unlikely to be used is that the original target has to be destroyed or you’d end up with two copies, and that means that the broadcast booth would also be a suicide booth. I can’t see any ethics committee agreeing to the experiments, let alone a government allowing the production. Even just duplicating a person would cause all manner of problems and legal hassles for future teleportees. In 1996 James Patrick Kelly wrote “Think Like a Dinosaur which covers this rather well, throwing in an alien race who created the technology and have very different ideas about ethics to humans (it was turned into an episode of “The Outer Limits” as well) although I’m not completely convinced that the idea had not been used before, certainly similar themes are touched upon in Clifford Simak’s excellent “Goblin Reservation” from 1968 and the aforementioned “Transmat”. A less traumatic teleporter failure story than most and potentially more important to our “instant-gratification” culture is the Isaac Asimov short “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” which may be my favourite Asimov short, you can read a summary on its wiki. The technology of the Doors is not really discussed much in the story, but it feels to me more of a this type of system.

Wormhole Teleportation

This may be possible, using an Einstein-Rosen bridge to connect two places in space-time, but considering the Exotic matter and Energy required it is more likely that you’d need at the very least some kind of “Jump-belt” or armour to protect you during the travel (or most likely a ship see this post). Still the chances are better than a Quantum teleporter ever being built. The novel and movie “Jumper” by Stephan Gould use exactly this method of teleportation, although it is not a technological device, but rather a mutation.

These things... Picture from

These things…
Picture from

This wormhole technology is used in the Stargate franchise repeatedly, although it is never mentioned exactly how the Asgard transportation beam is meant to work, it is presumably a variation on the wormhole technology used in the gates themselves and the transport rings that drop from ships and pyramid ceilings. The wormhole transporter also turns up under the names “Groundbridge” and “Spacebridge” in the “Transformers” franchise, whether it be the original cartoon or the internal “Spacebridge” of the “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen“‘s Jetfire. As to whether such a technology would ever be cost effective or even feasible it is impossible to predict. We just can’t build any Wormhole devices yet, not even a detector (if they are even existent!) . When we discover how to build and control a wormhole generator, we may find out that there are terrible problems with the process. Not the least the exotic energies and materials that will almost certainly be required. Still it seems likely that this way of travelling is more likely than being transmitted atom by atom.

Hyper-dimensional portals

Strictly speaking you can argue that hyper-dimensional portals are the same as the wormhole, but there are slight differences that affect the science (and the nature of the science-fiction as a result). Firstly let me just say, there is no evidence for hyper-dimensionality, however we wouldn’t really expect there to be any evidence since we live in our curved four-dimensional universe with no way of perceiving beyond it. The science to support Hyperdimensionality is pretty vague, consisting mostly of some mathematics and hand-waving with little to no real science backing it up. However Inter-dimensional travel, alternate realities and hyper-spaces are so much a part of excepted science-fiction that one may be forgiven for believing there is something to all this. Robert A. Heinlein explored the technology in his YA novel “Tunnel In The Sky” (1955) where the teleporter or “Ramsbotham Gate” (which was intended to be a time-machine and so might be a wormhole generator) is used to colonise other worlds. School kids are even dumped on a semi-safe world for their final exam in the Solo-Survival course (extreme scouts). Of course something goes wrong and strands the protagonist’s class far longer than anyone had planned for, and lets a “Lord of the flies” experiment play out on an alien world.

-BAMF- from wikipedia...

from wikipedia…

Travel by hyper-dimensional portal seems to be the preferred method of teleportation in the Marvel universe, it is via an “alternate dimension” that Nightcrawler ‘bamfs’ to and from (which may or may not be the source of the smoke and brimstone smell that accompanies his teleporting), he is not the only mutant that can teleport in the Marvel Universe (or indeed beyond). Such non-technological teleportation is more like the abilities assigned to Psionics during the golden age science-fiction.

Psionic Teleportation

This isn’t really technology at all, and like all Psionics there is a lot more fiction than science involved. Even the most encouraging parapsychological research has found no testable evidence for “Apportation” as the trick is called in Psychic circles. It is a Psychic power that is far easier to believe is accomplished by use of secret knowledge like Palming and Misdirection than Psionic Teleportation. That said, sci-fi shows have always enjoyed a little Psionic action. With the original “The Tomorrow People” the teleportation (rather jauntily called ‘Jaunting’) was a purely psychic ability, but one that could be assisted and amplified by ‘biotronic’ computational power, a Jaunting pad and Jaunting belts to aid in the targeting. And Blake’s 7 from the BBC also allowed some Psionic Teleportation from time to time (despite the protestations of its impossibility from Orac) with Cally essentially stealing the keys to the Liberator through Interplanetary space. Blake’s 7 did more famously have ship based teleporters that operated on an unknown principle (which may have been wormhole or hyper-dimensional) and relied on a unique alloy called Aquitar being used in the targeting bracelets (there was also talk of Teleportation Transducers and Dynamon crystals).  

In conclusion

Science is unlikely to make teleportation a reality anytime soon. It may actually be impossible, and all the current evidence is that we’ll never achieve it. Still as a sci-fi trope it is unlikely to die out soon, and as long as mankind continues to dream of matter-transmission there is the hope that somebody somewhere may one day stumble upon the secret of teleportation.