There are many forms of teleportation in science fiction, but I’m going to limit my post to a gadget-based form of teleportation. That means no wormholes or fourth or fifth spatial dimension to travel through or other natural phenomena or use of psionic powers or mere wish fulfilment. There has to be some pseudo or real engineering behind the teleportation.

Perhaps the first engineered teleportation in science fiction was in The Man Without a Body by Edward Page Mitchell, which was published in the New York paper, The Sun in 1877. The story is about a scientist who discovers a method to disassemble a cat’s atoms transmit them over the telegraph wire and then reassemble them. When he tries this on himself, the telegraph’s battery dies after only the man’s head is transmitted. Hence the gruesome title.

Here we have a medium of transmission (the telegraph wire) which allows the teleportation to be undertaken very fast – but does not break the speed of light of barrier. We also have the idea of disassembling in one place and reassembling in another place. This is a recurring theme throughout science fiction teleportation stories. Perhaps the most notable such teleportation was Star Trek’s transporter. Turns out that the transporter system they used was to actually get round the expense of putting graphics into the programmes to show craft landing and taking off. All Star Trek had to do was fade the people out / in with a bit of cheap glitter thrown in for good measure.

The main issue with this method is where do the atoms in the space that the person arrives in go to? They cannot stay in the same place as the person. The best mechanism for dealing with it is to transfer those atoms in the space the person is going to occupy back to the space the person left. Otherwise you have all sorts problems about creating vacuums, explosions or hybrid creatures. The last was well illustrated in The Fly (published in the June 1957 issue of the Playboy magazine) by George Langelaan where a scientist successfully teleports himself over a short distance but discovers that he has been merged with an unseen housefly that entered the telepod with him. The process of dematerialization and reconstitution combined his molecular structure with that of the fly. Two films were made based on this story in 1958 and 1986, and an opera in 2008.

The other popular teleportation mechanism is the portal, where you step from one side of the portal in one place to the other side of the portal in another place. This usually entails effectively travelling faster than light – an absolute godsend to science fiction writers. This has been gaining popularity in science fiction recently partly due to recent advances in science.

The science I’m talking about here is of course quantum entanglement or what Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance’. The easy to understand definition of quantum entanglement is: a physical phenomenon that occurs when pairs or groups of particles are generated, interact, or share spatial proximity in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the state of the others, even when the particles are separated by a large distance.

Note this definition does not involve the teleportation of matter, merely the information of what state that matter is in. The travelling of one bit of matter relative to the other has to be sone by sub-lightspeed means.

However, a lot of current teleportation in science fiction tends to use quantum entanglement as a magic wand. Can the instantaneous transmission of information somehow enable real teleportation?

The obvious suggestion is that the transmitted information can be used to direct a build of whatever is sent. This means the receiving end has to have the wherewithal to do the building. If it uses the entangled particles themselves, then there is a limited supply. If it doesn’t then the teleportation involves reassembling something out of local supplies – so the set up for reassembling has to be available and working. Both situations are susceptible to mishaps and therefore a good basis for a science fiction story.

Can the quantum entanglement magic wand type of teleportation become possible in the future through new discoveries or scientific development?

Einstein among others believed that quantum physics theory was incomplete and that there was more to discover. I tend to agree with him even in this day and age. So the answer to the question is I don’t know and we’ll have to watch this space for more development in quantum physics before we can definitively answer that question.

In the meantime, science fiction authors can still write about this type of teleportation without fear of being accused of transferring their art form to fantasy land.


3 thoughts on “Teleportation

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