Teleportation or an Improved Telegraph?

Well, neither, really.

This article from Elite Daily may be the worst excuse for science writing I have come across in a long time.  The headline reads “This Scientific Breakthrough May Have Laid The Groundwork For Human Teleportation.”

star-trek-transporter

No, it hasn’t.  No, no, no, no.

First of all, there is the total mess that the author of the post makes of the actual claims being made.

The lead sentence of the article is this:

Dutch scientists have unlocked the secret to the sci-fi phenomenon of teleportation, successfully causing an atom to vanish and reappear nearly 10 feet away.

Fine.  Maybe they have.  But it is puzzling that the very next sentence says this:

The Irish Times reports that a team led by Professor Ronald Hanson of Delft University conducted a demonstration in which information encoded into sub-atomic particles was teleported between two points with 100 percent accuracy for the very first time.

And, to make things worse, later the article tells us that:

The last attempt to teleport quantum information, conducted in Maryland in 2009, did have a success rate but only once every 100 million tries.

I’m still trying to figure out the difference between something working one time out of 100 million and it happening by sheer statistical coincidence.

lottery balls

After all, there is that whole “infinite number of monkeys” issue.Monkeys

So, what’s the story?  Did an atom disappear in one spot and then show up in another, or, for the first time ever, did information get “teleported” from one spot to another, or did it happen again after having happened in Maryland in 2009?  Enquiring minds want to know, and The National Inquirer had better editorial standard than Elite Daily, which is, embarrassingly, “The Voice of Generation-Y.”  If these children are the future, we’re in some trouble.

 school for the gifted

The articles want us to believe that we’ll be beaming around the universe in no time.  Just remember not to wear a red shirt on the trip.

But even the scientist cited in the interview is unwilling to go this far:

If you believe we are nothing more than a collection of atoms strung together in a particular way, then in principle it should be possible to teleport ourselves from one place to another…In practice it’s extremely unlikely, but to say it can never work is very dangerous…I would not rule it out because there’s no fundamental law of physics preventing it. If it ever does happen it will be far in the future.

Actually, I think the danger lies in letting people believe that such technologies are within reach at all is what is dangerous.  The idea that we’ll get to the point where Star Trek technologies will let us have unlimited energy and undo the harm we are doing to the planet dulls people’s mind to the fact that we are on a massively unsustainable course right now.  And this article, its source and the numerous recaps of it circulating on the Internet are classic examples of what I call utopian porn.

The Irish Times article is scarcely any better (and in some ways it is worse), but one of the main problems here is that the researchers themselves are saying silly, silly things.  Quantum entanglement is what’s being investigated here.  The existence of quantum entanglement, which is somewhat controversial, would entail that information could be transmitted instantaneously, a violation of one of the pillars of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which has as a consequence the law that information cannot be transmitted faster than the speed of light.

einstein-laughing

It is possible to generate entangled particles, for example, two paired particles with opposite spins.  We know that, according to quantum mechanics, if particle A’s spin is up, particle B’s must be down and vice versa.  However, before a measurement is made, it is a consequence of quantum physics that neither particle has any spin whatsoever.  Since the particles are entangled, even if we move them far, far apart from one another, the moment we measure the spin of A, we know the spin of B.  That is, we get instantaneous information about the way things are in a distant region of spacetime.  Instantaneously, not speed-limited by the velocity of light.

Demonstrating a reliable way of exploiting quantum entanglement would be groundbreaking in physics.    I’ll even grant for argument’s sake that this is what the Dutch scientist, Ronald Hanson, has done.  But demonstrating the instantaneous transfer of information from point-to-point is not at all the same thing as moving an atom from one point to another in no time at all.  Let alone a human body or even a potato.  (To see a great CBC cartoon about the implications of real teleportation, look here.)

So in one brief interview, Hanson goes from saying that if we are just made up of atoms then it is possible we can have Star Trek-like transporters someday to admitting that the main use of this information-transfer experiment will have to do with computing, a better internet and increased cyber security.  Those last three things are good enough to want, but the insatiable need of the bad science writers to sexy things up pushes the headlines and the scientists themselves to make very silly and confused claims, indeed.  And it reinforces the harmful notion that the gee-whiz, there’s-no-need-to-worry-about-real-problems-facing-us future is just around the corner.

rose_colored_glasses

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Radioactive is the New Black

When I had the chance to spend a month in Egypt in the summer of 2001, I was based in Cairo but took a few trips to other parts of the country. In almost all of the hotels, you had to put your room key into a wall plate to get the electricity to turn on in the room. In Egypt in the summer, this meant that your room was pretty freaking hot every time you came back to it.

      desert

Being a typical American, I asked for another key to my room and left the AC on all day, just like a lot of us do in hotels and our homes here in the US. Looking back on it, it was not my proudest moment. I was willing to do just about anything to spare myself a few minutes of inconveniently high temperature (and having to reset my alarm clock) when I returned to my room.

The reasons the Egyptian hotels had this set-up is that Egypt has no oil, relatively speaking. This means they cannot burn it to generate electricity or sell to buy electricity from somewhere else. So, electricity is expensive, and the easiest (and best) solution is just to use less—to stop wasting it all the time. Given the extraordinary percentage of electricity used for air conditioning in the US, setting thermostats higher or just getting used to sweating might be a pretty good idea.

no ac

A few years earlier, when I lived on the Big Island of Hawai’i for a year, I marveled at the first wind farm I had ever seen. It was on the southern edge of the island and it made a haunting, other-worldly noise as we drove by. It is an ideal spot for a wind farm—there are trade winds that blow virtually around the clock, 365 days a year.

wind farm

It seemed like genuinely sustainable energy in a place that was intensely interested in sustainability—on the island, the things you need either occur there naturally or get shipped in at great expense, and the waste you produce either gets dealt with in an environmentally safe way, gets shipped somewhere else, or damages your environment. As a case in point, if you eat the things native to Hawai’i, food costs are actually lower than in New Jersey—a realization that I had when I moved to New Jersey the next year and saw my cost of living rise. But if you want steak and potatoes instead of fish, avocados and tons of indigenous fruits, you’ll pay a lot for you dinner.

But within a couple of months of my arrival in Hawai’i, the power company (with the approval of the local government and with little protest) returned to their previous method of generating electricity—burning waste oil that they purchased from various vendors.

oil power plant

The rationale was simple—it was cheaper per kilowatt hour. Speaking with a long time native of the place, I was told that, being an island, they had no concerns about air pollution (those trade winds I mentioned just blow the smoke away) and therefore it would be irrational to pay more than the least possible amount per kilowatt hour.

I was, and am, still amazed by this reasoning, but I still hear it today in the debate about renewable energy sources versus coal. I think the economic argument is very likely to win the day for a long time to come, so I am fairly pessimistic about the prospects for solar, wind and the other sources of green power until some market change occurs.

 Some analysts expect the market forces to push the cost of fossil fuels so high that green energy will become economically efficient. Michael Klare makes the argument in The Race for What’s Left that we are past the age of easily extractable oil and that the increased cost of extraction from extreme environments (like deep in the Gulf of Mexico) will soon drive the cost of oil too high to be the first choice of energy consumers. He also notes that the added costs of extraction are often externalized in the form of environmental degradation, government subsidies and the like, so that fossil fuels may have more time left than they deserve.

fire water

(The book also has alarming data about other consumable goods such as rare earth elements, and is a sobering read)

As of 2009, 67% of the energy produced in the world was generated from fossil fuels, with coal providing 41%, natural gas providing 21% and oil making up the remaining 5%. Renewables provided 16%, but much of that comes from hydroelectric plants, not from solar or wind energy production. Nuclear power provided 13% But there are other problems facing green energy. Besides being more expensive per kilowatt hour than coal, oil and natural gas, there are problems of continuous production, pollution costs during production (with solar panels, especially) and scale for green energy that may well prove insuperable.

Except, perhaps, for nuclear energy. Already, European countries rely far more heavily on nuclear power than does the US. France, for example, gets roughly 75% of their power from nuclear reactors. No energy source is without its impacts, and the threats associated with nuclear power are widely known. But the cost per kW is pretty low, and therefore attractive to US consumers.

Now certainly some as-yet unforeseen tech breakthrough might help us.

mr_fusion

But waiting for that possible help in the future seems irresponsible given the problems we are already starting to face and which will inevitably worsen.

Add to this the fact that in the US, we live in a society where it is not uncommon for people to have nearly one car per eligible driver in the family while investment in public transit has shrunk to virtually nothing, for each household to be temperature controlled year-round whether people are home or not and countless other example of the wasteful use of energy. (We also flush away a couple of gallons of perfectly good, potable water every time we use the restroom. More on that later.) As long as we keep needing energy in the amounts we are using it now, our need will outstrip the potential of green sources to supply it. Eventually, we will not be able to keep up with the demand for energy by any means. And, to make things worse, we keep encouraging and incentivizing other cultures to “get into the 21st century” by adopting, among other things, our energy-extravagant standard of living.

It seems to me that in the short- to moderate-term future we have two choices: use a lot less energy in general or shift from dreams of green energy to the reality of the new black energy, nuclear power. Me? I think I’ll go turn off the AC and see if that helps.

nest

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