Magazine | June 11, 2012, Issue

To Boldly Politick

It’s one thing to read that scientists are working on teleportation devices. It’s quite another to learn they not only got one to work but beamed something 143 kilometers between two islands off North Africa. Just photons, granted — particles so evanescent and slight they have no more mass than a politician’s promise, but they’re fast. Imagine the speed it takes for a thought to go from Joe Biden’s brain to his mouth, and then double it. That fast.

It’s not ready for people yet. MIT’s Technology Review blog notes that “the quantum information that photons carry cannot survive the battering it gets in passing through the atmosphere. It simply leaks away.” Best-case scenario: If you start wearing a plaid jacket, you end up on the other side wearing a solid color. Worst case: Your body is transferred across great distances, but arrives as formless goo. Clean up on pad seven. You’d think travel insurance would cover that, but there’s probably a clause.

There are practical applications to teleportation: It can be used to establish secure, unhackable communications with orbiting satellites, because there’s nothing to hack. It’s here, and then it’s there. So they hope, anyway; once media companies start using teleportation to transmit pornography or Game of Thrones episodes, the geeks will have the system cracked in a week, and through some peculiar quirk of the quarks, pirated episodes will appear on computers before they’re even filmed.

Ridiculous? Hah! They laughed at Galileo’s assertion of a heliocentric cosmological model, but that was because he usually described it in limerick form. This is just the start. When it comes to quantum physics, we are pygmies in a dark room handling an elephant’s trunk, thinking: Pretty sure this is a garden hose. In 200 years people will be carrying around microscopic personal black holes they can use to send objects anywhere in the world. And the Post Office will still be unable to close a small-town branch.

Teleportation has been a science-fiction idea for decades. In the 1958 movie The Fly, a scientist perfects a transportation device, but when he tests it on himself a fly gets into the booth, their DNA is mixed up, and the egghead ends up with a huge Musca domestica noggin on his shoulders. (He still has his intelligence, or else the second half of the movie would consist entirely of him banging against a window screen.) Since this was the Fifties, some critics probably thought it revealed anxiety over people turning into Communists, albeit unattractive ones with compound eyes. The movie was set in France, so perhaps it’s a cautionary tale about unwise economic integration.

#page#A few years later, Star Trek made the transporter a pop-culture standard. Kirk and crew stepped on the pad, looking resolute; Scotty pulled a lever, and they dissolved in sparkles and reappeared on another set on the Desilu backlot. Sometimes it went wrong, and turned Captain Kirk into a woman who was 1/32 Cherokee, or something equally bizarre.

Point is, everyone working on teleportation today saw Star Trek as a kid. You know the guy who started the recent experiment whispered “Energize” when he pushed the button. Star Trek was the future, yes, but the future has to start sometime.

It has to start somewhere, too. The article at Technology Review notes that the European scientists are locked in a scientific race with Chinese scientists, and concludes: “The contrast with the US couldn’t be clearer.”

Meaning, we’ve ceded this terrain to Europe, which still has brainiacs tending the flame of scientific inquiry as the continent shudders and devolves, and to China, which is probably looking for a way to beam unruly protesters to Jupiter. Talk about your Great Leap Forward. Why isn’t the U.S. in the race? You can imagine the excuses.

  • Relatively low gas prices and provincialism make Americans uninterested in teleportation; years of propagandistic brainwashing from Madison Avenue have rendered us incapable of giving up our cars. Solution: higher gas taxes, which will be used to fund start-ups like BrightBlink or LeapSprint. After the bankruptcy an audit will show that most of the loan went for logo design and espresso machines, and while the prototype successfully transported a particle 200 miles, they used FedEx.

  • Lack of a clear national enemy. If this had happened during the Cold War, it would have been another Sputnik-spasm. Hordes of Red Army soldiers can suddenly materialize in Times Square, rudely pointing guns and sneering at the Constitution! The Teleportation Gap would have been an election issue; a crash program would have paid hundreds of men with buzz cuts and black-rimmed glasses to peer at slide rules, figuring out a way to beam a dog 30 miles away. We can do 25, but after that they end up all inside out. We’d have beaten the Russians, but the transportation and auto-worker unions would have lobbied to ban the technology, and then Carter would have insisted that the teleportation streams keep it under 55 mph.

  • Fictional fantasies are far more fun. We explored the universe with Star Trek shows, so the grunt work of building spaceships is a bore. Our contribution to the future will be “Liking” the Chinese moon base on Facebook.

  • National greatness has new definitions. A thousand years from now history might note that the United States put a human being on the moon, but that will pale compared with accomplishments like bringing down the out-of-pocket costs on birth control.

Now, if you could figure out a way to teleport fetuses out of the womb without requiring a trip to Planned Parenthood, HHS might be interested. Should be cheap, too. Don’t have to worry about where they end up.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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