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.”


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.


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.



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