Monday, July 25, 2011

Man Will Teleport When Pigs Fly (or Teleport)

I expect to see some pretty amazing technological developments over the coming decades, but I am certain that the teleportation of matter will not be one of them.

There are two particularly intriguing sci-fi notions that come up regularly in physics lectures as well as fantasy films, and they are time travel and teleportation.  I am often asked which feat will be accomplished first by man.  I believe that travelling instantaneously along the dimension of time is actually more feasible than doing so across a dimension of space. 

Einstein’s special relativity shows that the universe allows matter to travel forward in time (although travelling backwards in time may not be permissible).  All one must do to travel forward in time is move at a very high velocity, near the speed of light (300,000 km/s).  Einstein showed that accelerating mass to such extreme velocities requires a tremendous amount of energy; so, it is difficult and costly, but not outside the realm of possibility.

Imagine for a moment that a high speed train were to circle the equator at near light speed on a fixed path.  The clocks on the train would run slower, and the passengers would age slower than if they were sitting stationary on the Earth.  Unfortunately, the centripetal acceleration of the circular motion would not allow the train to stay on this fixed course (it would fly out into orbit).  Also, the frictional losses would be enormous.  The only practical place to perform forward time travel is likely in outer space, where there are no effects of friction.

Travelling backwards in time requires faster than light travel (tachyon speeds), but light speed seems to be a firm boundary that no matter can exceed.  In any case, if it were possible to travel backwards in time, we would expect to have met time travellers from the future at some point, and to my knowledge, we have not encountered any as of yet.  Back to the Future is a phenomenal film, but it is sheer fantasy.

Teleportation would be a real game-changer for mankind.  Transporting matter around the Earth (be it living or non-living) takes so much energy and time.  While teleportation would likely require vast amounts of energy, the time of travel would reduce to zero – once you clear customs.

While there is a scientific basis for how time travel can occur, there is none for teleportation.  The most realistic concept was depicted well in the 1986 re-make of The Fly

In the film, a scientist builds two pods (one for departure, and another for arrival).  However, the matter does not actually get transported from one pod to the other.  The matter inside the first pod is chemically analyzed and then vaporized.  Then, the information is sent to the second pod, which attempts to re-synthesize the same matter that was in the original pod.  Teleportation infers instantaneous transport, while what occurs in the film is a two-step process: decomposition and creation.

The scientist had created a chemical photocopier, not a transporter.  While the invention would be ground-breaking, no person would use it to get to work in the morning.  Rather than being transported, they would be killed and then newly regenerated at work – not a good way to start the day.  Oh, and be warned:  if a housefly happens to join you in pod 1, you will die a horrible death over the coming weeks.

On one hand, it really is too bad that teleportation will not be realized in the foreseeable future.  So much of life consists of moving stuff from one location to another.  I have a flight to Vancouver in a couple of days, and it would be nice to bypass the experience, arrive at my destination, and know with certainty that my luggage would too.

On the other hand, transport can be a lot of fun.  Imagine adolescence without road trips, or camping without canoeing.  Often, getting there is the best part.  Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right: “Life is a journey, not a destination”.  

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