Will we ever 'Jump'?

February 14, 2008 9:17:04 AM PST
David Rice is a man with a secret, one that he exploits to go from catching a killer wave in Fiji to bedding a gorgeous blonde in London, just by thinking about it. In the new film "Jumper," which opens Thursday, Rice, played by Hayden Christiansen, has a genetic mutation that allows him to "teleport" from place to farflung place instantly, just by thinking about it. While teleportation has figured prominently in science fiction, from cries of "Beam me up, Scotty" on "Star Trek" to "apparitions" in the "Harry Potter" books, physicists say that teleportation is possible now, at least on a small scale, and the applications for the future are far from fictitious.

But pop culture's depictions of "beaming" people from one place to another have significantly mangled the perception of what's actually possible under the laws of physics. According to physicists, teleportation in its most basic sense is not about sending matter, but about sending information.

"Teleportation is a protocol for sending quantum states from one place to another," said Jeff Kimble, a quantum physics professor at the California Institute of Technology. "What is a quantum state? A quantum state is a mathematical description of all the characteristics that one could learn from measurements."

Basically, according to Kimble, when particles are "teleported" the actual particle is not teleported, but the information about the particle is teleported. In the process of transfer, the particle gets destroyed and then "rebuilt" with the information sent to the other side, Kimble said.

(Are you still with me?)

"We're not sending the material system itself. What we're sending is the quantum state," he said. "We don't send the airplane. We send the specifications of the airplane. It's the same thing as a fax. ? We don't send the paper or ink. We send the information."

Scientists have already begun teleporting particles on a very basic level.

The particles can be sent in various ways.

In the late 1990s, physicists began experimenting with teleporting photons, a particle or wave of light without any mass. In 2004, Austrian researchers sent photons through a fiber optic cable underneath the Danube River. In the past few years, that has progressed to moving subatomic particles small distances, such as the width of a hair, according to Kimble.

Despite the progress made in just the last 10 years, teleporting humans would be something for the distant future, if it ever came about, according to Michio Kaku, a co-founder of string field theory, one of the newest branches of a mathematical approach to theoretical physics, and the author of the forthcoming book "Physics of the Impossible."

"Within five years, we begin to teleport a molecule and perhaps in 10 and 20 years, perhaps a virus," Kaku said. "But teleporting a cell is quite difficult. Teleporting people like Dr. Kirk [on Star Trek] is pretty far in the distance."

Still, Kaku is holding out hope.

"There are many labs looking at this," he said. "This whole process was considered impossible seven to eight years ago, but now we're doing it routinely, so who knows?"

Beyond what's possible in teleportation now, there are basic laws of physics that director Doug Liman breaks in the depiction of "jumpers" as they hop from place to place, said MIT physics professor Max Tegmark. One broken law is the most well-known one: E=MC2, Einstein's formula equating energy and mass.

"The main problem with what we saw in the movie is energy conservation," Tegmark said. "In a person there is enormous amount of energy. If I just converted you all into random energy, it would be like a huge hydrogen bomb went off. In order to just remove a whole person, you have to get rid of all the megatons of energy to go somewhere."

In the movie when Hayden Christiansen "jumps," there is evidence of some kind of atmospheric disturbance ? papers shuffle, furniture is knocked over, bystanders hear a dull roar ? but it's more like a strong gust of wind than an atomic bomb.

"I think Doug Liman is making it as realistic as he can, but I loved how he phrased 'slight implosion' [in the script] as Hayden Christiansen rushes out," Tegmark said.

When Christiansen's character and other jumpers teleport they also leave behind a trail called a "jump scar" through which other jumpers, and sometimes, inexplicably, bad guys, can follow them. Characters in the movie use the term "jump scar" and "worm hole" interchangeably.

"A worm hole looks like a black hole," Tegmark said, adding that like a black hole, a worm hole basically swallows the universe. "And that would be the end of the movie."

According to Tegmark, the exciting part of the teleportation technology is not teleporting humans, but teleporting information.

"If you want to send a secret message from the White House to the Pentagon and you send it encrypted, you're always worried some clever person cracked your code," he said. "With teleportation, then you can prove with basic properties of quantum physics, no one can intercept your message. If someone did, [the message] would get destroyed."

According to Tegmark, development of quantum teleportation will lead to the development of quantum computers, which in theory would be significantly faster than even the most advanced computers used by the National Security Agency.

"Quantum mechanics allows particles to be in several places at once. A quantum computer harnesses this weirdness to make parallel computations," he said. "A standard NSA program would take one billion years [to solve a problem] and the quantum computers would take one minute."

The NSA has the country's, if not the world's, most powerful computers.

In the end, however, despite scientific flaws in "Jumpers," the film, like other science fiction before it, will continue to inspire both aspiring lab rats and experienced scientists, according to Tegmark, who has been similarly inspired by writer Isaac Asimov.

"I think it's great when directors ? try to put as much physics as they can," in movies, he said. "Sci-fi doesn't just get people into science. Sci-fi can ask scientists to ask really basic questions about the nature of reality and sometimes that can lead to really useful applications. Teleportation is a case in point."