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Beam Me Up (Or Not)

Why one very smart scientist can teleport an atom, but not a coffee cup.

Christopher Monroe and fellow quantum physicists at the University of Maryland had a breakthrough earlier this year: They made something teleport. Sadly, it wasn't Captain Kirk, or anything resembling him. Instead it was information between two atoms, separated by a small distance. While it was a huge leap forward for quantum mechanics, we couldn't help but wonder: Are we one step closer to eliminating travel time?GOOD: So, quantum teleportation between atoms at a distance-what does it mean?Christopher Monroe: We moved information from one point to another. What really makes it weird is that the information that moves from A to B never occupies the space in between. There's a property of quantum mechanics called entanglement, and then there's this idea that things can be in two places at the same time-that's called superposition. Entanglement is what happens when you allow more complicated things to be superposed. We work with individual atoms. With that kind of material we can store information in a strange way-that is, we can store it in parallel, in one device. You can look at one side of the systems that's supposed to be over here and do something to it, and it appears somewhere else. So we can store a zero and a one at the same time, in a single atom.G: What are the implications of that?CM: Zeroes and ones carry the information in the conventional world-they're called bits. When you can store a zero and a one at the same time, that opens up new opportunities for moving information around, for storing things, for computing massive amounts of things in parallel. And it also allows you to do something called teleportation.G: That sounds exciting.CM: Don't get too excited. As far as we know, it really only works with tiny, simple systems. Those are the systems that obey these quantum laws. One of the mysteries of this type of physics is why it doesn't apply to big systems-why, for instance, a coffee cup can't be in two places at the same time, even though quantum mechanically it's allowed to.G: What kind of distances are we talking about?CM: About one meter. But a meter is a huge distance when you're an atom. Atomically speaking, it's zillions of miles away.G: Tell me someone is thinking about teleporting human beings.CM: If by teleportation you mean quantum teleportation, I don't know how to do it. The problem is, we don't know how to apply quantum mechanics to a big thing. Maybe there's something that doesn't involve quantum mechanics, but I don't know how to apply that law of physics to big objects. No one knows how to do that. Hell, Einstein didn't believe in quantum mechanics because of this problem. I'm with him on this-I don't see it applying to big objects.


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