Teleportation? Very Possible. Next Up: Time Travel.

Some of the most far-out sci-fi is eminently do-able.

By Michio Kaku|Thursday, February 28, 2008

Any science fiction aficionado has seen it all before: beaming through walls, riding in starships that move faster than light, or traveling instantly to distant places in space and time. These ideas aren’t just creative fantasies, though; they emerge from theoretical physics, especially the work of Albert Einstein, whose vision included a universe that curves back on itself in three dimensions of space and a fourth, invisible dimension of time. If Einstein’s version of the universe is correct—and experiments done over the last century suggest that essentially it is—then the fictionalized feats based on his theories might be possible as well. The potential has become so tantalizing that serious physicists now regularly comment on Einstein-based technologies in the most august journals of their field.

One of the most insightful of such speculators is Michio Kaku, a physicist at the City University of New York. Einstein’s scientific legacy, Kaku points out, has already formed the basis of many incredible inventions, including the laser and the global positioning system. But what would it take to reach the next level, developing such extrapolations of Einstein’s genius as the means to journey through wormholes, teleport through space, or travel back and forth in time? Scientists have already begun the work, and Kaku reports on their progress here.

In science fiction movies like Stargate and Contact, wormholes connect distant points in the universe, allowing people to travel from one spot to another in far less time than the hundreds or millions of years required to make the trip at the speed of light, the greatest conventional velocity. Einstein’s general theory of relativity suggests the possibility of wormholes—literal shortcuts through space-time caused by the curvature of the universe itself. But do wormholes really exist, or are they figments of mathematics?

There are several major problems to face. Many solutions result in “nontraversable wormholes.” As with a black hole, once you pass the event horizon of such a wormhole, you can never leave it. In 1988, Kip Thorne and his colleagues at Caltech found a possible way out: a traversable wormhole, one through which you could pass freely back and forth. In fact, for one solution, the trip through a wormhole would be no worse than riding in a plane.

There was a catch, though, that made such a wormhole impractical. Gravity would crush the throat of the wormhole, destroying any travelers trying to reach the other side. To stabilize the throat of the wormhole, scientists would need the repulsive force of perhaps the most exotic and speculative entities in the universe: negative mass and negative energy. Conceivably, using either could keep the throat open sufficiently long to allow astronauts a clear passage.

Scientists have looked for negative matter in nature, so far without success. One should note here that antimatter and negative matter are two entirely different things. The first exists and has positive energy but reversed charge. Negative matter has not been proved to exist. Negative matter is quite peculiar because it is lighter than nothing. In fact, it floats. Unlike meteors that come crashing into planets, drawn by the planets’ gravity, negative matter would shun large bodies like stars and planets. It would be repelled, not attracted. Hence, although negative matter might exist, we’d expect to find it only in deep space, certainly not on Earth.

Even if we could locate or create negative energy or matter, there is still a big problem: getting and manipulating enough of the stuff. Matthew Visser of Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, estimates that the amount of negative energy needed to open up a one-meter-wide wormhole would be comparable to the mass of Jupiter, except that it would be negative. He says, “You need about minus-one Jupiter mass to do the job. Just manipulating a positive Jupiter mass of energy is already pretty freaky, well beyond our capabilities into the foreseeable future.” It might be millennia before we can even think about harnessing power on this scale.

Yet, if we ever do create them, wormholes could open the door to traveling not just in space but in time as well.

From the perspective of science, time travel was impossible in Newton’s universe, where time was seen as an arrow. Once released, it could never deviate from its past. One second on Earth was one second throughout the universe. This concept was overthrown by Einstein, who showed that time is more like a river that meanders across the universe, speeding up and slowing down as it snakes across stars and galaxies. So one second is not absolute; it varies as we move around the universe.

Physicists hope to teleport complex molecules in the coming years. After that, a DNA molecule or virus could be teleported within decades.

Once considered to be fringe science, time travel has suddenly become a playground for theoretical physicists. As Thorne has written: “Time travel was once solely the province of science fiction writers. How times have changed! One now finds scholarly analyses of time travel in serious scientific journals, written by eminent theoretical physicists…. Why the change? Because we physicists have realized that the nature of time is too important an issue to be left solely in the hands of science fiction writers.”

The reason for all the excitement is that Einstein’s equations allow for many kinds of time machines. The most promising design is based on a traversable wormhole. This wormhole is constructed with both of its ends initially located close together. Two clocks, one at each end, tick in synchronization. Now take one end of the wormhole and its clock and send them into space at near-light speed. Time slows at that end due to an effect in Einstein’s theory of special relativity known as time dilation: Relative to a stationary observer on the ground, time aboard a spacecraft appears to slow down; relative to the spacecraft, time for the observer on the ground seems to speed up.

Since the two clocks at the ends of the wormhole are no longer in sync, a wormhole traveler passing from one end to the other can move back and forth in time. There is a limit to how much time traveling he can do, though—he is able to go back in time only to the point at which the time machine was built.

When it comes to the potential for time travel, there is still fierce debate. In 1997 Bernard Kay and Marek Radzikowski of the University of York in England and Robert Wald of the University of Chicago showed that time travel was consistent with all the known laws of physics, except in one place—near the wormhole entrance. This is just where we would expect Einstein’s theory to break down and quantum effects, which work at the subatomic level, to take over. The problem is that when we try to calculate radiation effects as we enter a time machine, we have to come up with a theory that combines Einstein’s general relativity with the quantum theory of radiation. Yet when we naively try to do so, the resulting theory makes no sense. It yields a series of infinite answers, which are meaningless.

This is where a theory of everything takes over. All the problems of traveling through a wormhole that have bedeviled physicists (the stability of the wormhole, the radiation that might kill you, the closing of the wormhole as you enter it) are concentrated at the horizon, precisely where Einstein’s theory makes no sense.

Thus the key to understanding time travel is to understand the physics of the horizon, and only a theory of everything that unites Einstein’s relativity and the quantum realm can explain this. So the final resolution to whether all these science fiction devices are possible will have to wait until physicists can finally develop a theory of the universe that transcends even Einstein’s.

Perhaps the most tangible of the far-out technologies suggested by Einstein’s theories is teleportation. The key lies in a celebrated 1935 paper by Einstein and his colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen. Ironically, in their paper they proposed an experiment—the so-called EPR experiment, named for the three authors—to kill off, once and for all, quantum theory’s introduction of probability into physics. Quantum theory requires probability because its formulas do not directly describe things like the precise position of particles. Instead, the formulas describe waves, known as Schrödinger waves. The amplitude of the waves at a particular location translates to the probability that a particle will be found at that point.

As the EPR experiment pointed out, according to quantum theory, if two particles—electrons, for example—are initially vibrating in unison (a state called coherence), they can remain in wavelike synchronization even if they are separated by a large distance. Two electrons may be trillions of miles apart, but there is still an invisible Schrödinger wave connecting them, like an umbilical cord. If something happens to one electron, some of that information is immediately transmitted to the other, faster than the speed of light. This concept—that particles vibrating in coherence have some kind of deep connection—is called quantum entanglement. Einstein derisively called this “spooky action at a distance,” and he took it to “prove” that quantum theory was wrong, since nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

But in the 1980s, Alain Aspect and his colleagues in France performed the EPR experiment using entangled photons emitted from calcium atoms and two detectors placed 13 meters (40 feet) apart. The results agreed precisely with quantum theory. Was Einstein wrong, then, about the speed of light’s being the speed limit of the universe? Not really­. In Aspect’s experiment, information did travel faster than the speed of light, but the information was random, hence useless.

Yet it is entanglement that opens the door to teleportation. In 1993 scientists at IBM, led by Charles Bennett, showed that it was physically possible to teleport objects, at least at the atomic level, using the EPR experiment. Precisely speaking, they showed that you could teleport all the information contained within a particle. Two particles with the same information are identical, so teleporting the information is essentially the same as teleporting the particle itself. Since then, physicists have been able to teleport photons and entire cesium atoms. Within a few decades, scientists may be able to teleport a DNA molecule or even a virus.

If we ever do create them, wormholes could open the door to traveling not just in space but in time as well.

In these teleportation experiments, physicists start with, say, two atoms, A and C. Suppose we wish to teleport information from atom A to atom C. We begin by having a third atom, B, that starts out entangled with C. Now atom A comes in contact with atom B, so that the information content of atom A is transferred to atom B. Because B and C were originally entangled, A’s information has now been transferred to atom C; someone examining atom C would be unable to tell any difference between it and the original atom A.

The entanglement destroys the information within atom A (so we don’t have two copies after teleportation). This means that anyone being teleported in this way would die in the process. But the information content of his body would instantly appear somewhere else. In other words, he would die in one place but be reborn in another.

In 2007 Ashton Bradley of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum-Atom Optics in Brisbane proposed another teleportation method, tapping another Einstein insight, a state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate, or BEC, which is one of the coldest substances in the entire universe. A BEC is one-millionth to one-billionth of a degree above absolute zero, a temperature found only in the laboratory. When certain forms of matter are cooled to near absolute zero, their atoms all tumble down to the lowest energy state, so all of them vibrate in unison. The quantum waves of all the atoms overlap so that, in some sense, a BEC is like a gigantic superatom. Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bose predicted this bizarre state of matter in 1925, but not until 1995 was it finally created in the lab.

Here’s how the Australian teleportation device works. Start with a collection of supercold rubidium atoms in a BEC state. Apply a beam of matter, also made of rubidium atoms, to the BEC. These atoms also want to tumble down to the lowest energy state, shedding their excess energy in the form of a pulse of light. This light beam is then sent down a fiber-optic cable. Remarkably, it contains all the quantum information necessary to describe the original matter beam (for instance, the location and velocity of all its atoms). The light beam hits another BEC, which converts it into the original matter beam.

Given this progress, when might we be able to teleport ourselves? Physicists hope to teleport complex molecules in the coming years. After that, perhaps a DNA molecule or even a virus could be teleported within decades. There is nothing in principle to prevent us from teleporting an actual person (assuming we accept the risks), but the technical problems are staggering. It takes some of the finest physics laboratories in the world to create coherence between tiny photons of light and individual atoms. In fact, it could be centuries or longer before everyday objects are teleported, if it’s possible at all.

Adapted from the book Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration Into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel by Michio Kaku, available later this month in bookstores. Copyright © 2008 by Michio Kaku.
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