Why Can’t People Teleport?

Let’s face it: Nobody likes to travel.

Whether they’re traveling to get to an exotic location for vacation or traveling to work on a daily commute, nobody actually likes the part where they have to travel. The people who say they like to travel probably mean they like to arrive. That’s because being somewhere can be really fun: seeing new things, meeting new people, getting to work sooner so you can go home early and read physics books. The actual traveling part is usually a drag: getting ready, rushing, waiting, rushing some more. Whoever said “it’s the journey, not the destination” clearly never had to sit in traffic every day and never got stuck in a middle seat on a transatlantic flight.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a better way to get to places? What if you could just appear where you want to go, without going through all the places in between?

diptych of people standing in line and then teleporting to chair

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Teleportation has been a fixture in science fiction for well over 100 years. And who hasn’t fantasized about closing their eyes or hopping into a machine and suddenly finding themselves where they want to be? Think of the time you’d save! Your vacation could start now, and not after a 14-hour flight. We could get to other planets more easily, too. Imagine sending colonists to the nearest habitable planet (Proxima Centauri b, four light-years away) without having to spend decades in transit.

But is teleportation possible? And if it is, why is it taking scientists so long to make it a reality? Will it take hundreds of years to develop, or can I expect it as an app on my phone sometime soon? Set your phasers on stun, because we are going to beam you up on the physics of teleportation.

people teleporting

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Options for Teleportation

If your dream of teleportation is to be here in one moment and then be in a totally different place the next moment, then we are sad to tell you right off the bat that this is impossible. 

Unfortunately, physics has some pretty hard rules about anything happening instantaneously. Anything that happens (an effect) has to have a cause, which in turn requires the transmission of information. Think about it: In order for two things to be causally related to each other (like you disappearing here and you appearing somewhere else), they have to somehow talk to each other. And in this universe, everything, including information, has a speed limit.

Information has to travel through space just like everything else, and the fastest anything can travel in this universe is the speed of light. Really, the speed of light should have been called the “speed of information” or “the universe’s speed limit.” It’s baked into relativity and the very idea of cause and effect, which are at the heart of physics.

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