Gene Roddenberry was a man ahead of his time, accurately predicting the development of fantastic devices such as flip phones, tablets, Bluetooth and bionic eyes – even tractor beams. But one technology Roddenberry called for in the 1960s has yet to come off the screen: teleportation. It’s not just that "we just don’t have enough power," as Scotty would say, we also lack the basic knowledge base to make that a reality. At least for now. In his latest book, Frequently asked questions about space, Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson deal with this and a host of other ambiguities facing humanity – from whether there is an afterlife, why aliens have not yet come into contact with us, or whether our visible existence is actually a computer simulation.
Excerpt from Frequently asked questions about space authors Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson. Copyright © 2021 Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.
If your dream of teleportation is to be here at one point and to be in a completely different place the next, we can immediately tell you with regret that this is impossible. Unfortunately, physics has pretty tough rules about anything happening right now. Everything that happens (consequences) must have a cause, which in turn requires the transfer of information. Think about it: for two things to be causally related to each other (like disappearing here and appearing somewhere else), they have to somehow talk to each other. And in this universe, everything, including information, has a speed limit.
Information must travel through space like everything else, and the fastest thing that can travel in this universe is the speed of light. Indeed, the speed of light was to be called the “speed of information” or the “limit of the speed of space.” This is incorporated into relativity and the very idea of cause and effect, which are at the heart of physics.
Even gravity cannot move faster than light. The earth does not feel gravity from where the sun is currently; he feels gravity from where the sun was eight minutes ago. It takes so long for information to travel ninety-three million miles between here and there. If the Sun disappeared (teleporting for its rest), the Earth would resume its normal orbit for eight minutes before realizing that the Sun was gone.
So the idea that you can disappear in one place and reappear in another place right away is pretty out of the question. Something has to happen in between, and that something can’t move faster than light.
Fortunately, most of us are not so pranksters when it comes to the definition of “teleportation”. Most of us will accept “almost instantly” or “in the blink of an eye” or even “as fast as the laws of physics allow” for our teleportation needs. If this is the case, then there are two options for operating the teleportation machine:
1. Your teleportation machine could transport you to your destination at the speed of light.
2. Your teleportation machine could somehow shorten the distance between where you are and where you want to go.
Option # 2 is what you might call a “portal” type of teleportation. In movies, it would be a kind of teleportation that opens doors, usually through a wormhole or some kind of extradimensional subspace, through which you step to find yourself somewhere else. Wormholes are theoretical tunnels that connect points in space that are distant, and physicists have definitely suggested the existence of multiple dimensions beyond the three we know.
Unfortunately, both of these concepts are still largely theoretical. We didn’t actually see the wormhole, nor did we have an idea of how to open it or control where it leads. And the extra dimensions aren’t really something you can move into. They only represent additional ways in which your particles could move.
It is much more interesting to talk about option # 1, which, as it turned out, could be something we can do in the near future.
Getting there at the speed of light
If we can’t appear in other places right away or take shortcuts through space, can we at least get there as quickly as possible? The top speed of the universe, three hundred million meters per second, is pretty fast to reduce your commute to a fraction of a second and make the journey to the stars take years instead of decades or millennia. Teleportation at the speed of light would still be great.
To do this, you can imagine a machine that somehow takes your body and then pushes it at the speed of light to your destination. Unfortunately, there is a big problem with this idea, and that is that you are too heavy. The truth is that you are too massive to ever travel at the speed of light. First, it would take a huge amount of time and energy just to accelerate all the particles in your body (whether they are assembled or somehow broken down) to speeds that are close to the speed of light. And second, you would never get to the speed of light. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve been on a diet or worked on your CrossFit; nothing that has any mass can ever travel at the speed of light.
Particles like electrons and quarks, the building blocks of your atoms, have mass. This means that it takes energy to move, a lot of energy to move fast and infinite energy to reach the speed of light. They can travel at very high speeds, but they can never reach the speed of light.
This means that you, like the molecules and particles that make up what you are at the moment, could never actually teleport. Not instantaneously, and not at the speed of light. It will never happen that you transport your body somewhere so fast. It is simply not possible to move all the particles in your body fast enough.
But does that mean that teleportation is impossible? Not really!
There is one way this can still happen, and that is if we relax what “you” means. What if we didn’t transport you, your molecules, or your particles? What if we just conveyed the idea of you?
You are the information
One possible way to achieve teleportation at the speed of light is to scan you and send you as a beam of photons. Photons have no mass, which means they can go as fast as space allows. In fact, photons can only travel at the speed of light (there is no such thing as a slow-moving photon). *
Here is a basic recipe for teleportation at the speed of light:
Step # 1: Scan your body and note where all your molecules and particles are.
Step # 2: Transfer this information to your destination via a photon beam.
Step # 3: Receive this information and rebuild your body using new particles.
Is that possible? People have made incredible advances in scanning and 3D printing technologies. These days, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can scan your body to a resolution of 0.1 millimeter, which is roughly the size of a brain cell. Scientists have used 3D printers to print increasingly complicated groups of living cells (known as “organoids”) to test for cancer drugs. We have even made machines (using scanning tunneling microscopes) that can grab and move individual atoms. So it’s not hard to imagine that one day we’ll be able to scan and then print whole bodies.
The real constraint, however, may not be technological but philosophical. After all, if someone made a copy of you, would it actually be you?
Remember, there is nothing special about the particles that currently make up your body. All particles of a given type are the same. Each electron is perfectly identical to any other electron, and the same is true for quarks. Particles do not come out of the factory of the universe with personalities or any characteristics. The only difference between any two electrons or any two quarks is where each of them is located and with which other particles it socializes. *
But how many copies of you would still be you? Well, it depends on two things. The first is the resolution of the technology that scans and prints you. Can it read and print your cells? Your molecules? Your atoms, or even your individual particles?
An even bigger question is how much your “vi-ness” depends on small details. What level of detail is needed for the copy to still be considered to you? This turned out to be an open-ended question, and the answer may depend on how quantum your sense of self is.
Friendly communicator. Music maven. Explorer. Pop culture trailblazer. Social media practitioner.