Monday, August 29, 2005

Air Force Teleportation Physics Study

Osama Beamed Up 1
Military examines 'beaming up' data, people
Critics say its extreme computing, energy needs keep teleportation unlikely for now

By Keay Davidson
The San Francisco Chronicle

     Frustrated that terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden is still on the loose nearly four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, a few military types and their scientific advisers are pondering a "what if" solution straight out of TV's "Star Trek."

     Wouldn't it be neat, they ask, if we could nab bin Laden via teleportation? In "Star Trek," the characters traveled between spaceship and planet by having their bodies dematerialized, then "beamed" to another locale -- hence, the characters' familiar request to the ship's engineer: "Beam me up, Scotty."

     That's teleportation.

     Although many physicists think such ideas are claptrap, it would be ideal if the United States could teleport U.S. soldiers into "a cave, tap bin Laden on the shoulder, and say: 'Hey, let's go,' " said Ranney Adams, spokesperson for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base in the Southern California desert. "But we're not there (yet)."

     Not for want of trying, though. Last year, the Air Force spent $25,000 on a report, titled "Teleportation Physics Study," to examine possible ways to teleport humans and objects through space.

     The military has a long history of funding research into topics that seem straight out of science fiction, even occultism. These range from "psychic" spying to "antimatter"-propelled aircraft and rockets to strange new types of superbombs.

     Military-watchers have long argued over whether such studies are wastes of taxpayers' money or necessary to identify future super-weapons, weapons that a foe might develop if we don't.

     In recent years, many physicists have become excited about a phenomenon called "quantum teleportation," which works only with infinitesimally tiny particles. It might lead to new ways of transmitting cryptographically secure messages, some speculate, but not human beings for a long time to come, if ever.

     "Experts in the field can foresee using teleportation in the area of data encryption but not (at least not in the near future) for the purpose of 'beaming' macroscopic (e.g., human-size) objects across" space, said Phil Schewe, a physicist, chief science writer at the American Institute of Physics and author of a forthcoming book, "Bottled Lightning," on the history of the American electrical grid.

     Schewe thinks the government is sometimes justified in funding "offbeat research," but he is wary of the Air Force teleportation study, prepared by physicist Eric W. Davis.

     If the Air Force really thinks such study could lead to actual teleportation devices, "then I would say that something is wrong with the way the Air Force allocates its research money, at least on this topic," Schewe said.

     Pierre Chao, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said such seemingly bizarre research might be the necessary price that the United States must pay in order to guard its future security.

     "The devil's bargain that you're going to take if you're going to exist in that cutting-edge (scientific) world and use taxpayer dollars is that you're going to be investigating some pretty goofy things," Chaos said. "I'm not advocating that 'psychic teleportation' is anything real, but I am willing to accept a certain amount of 'slop' in the system to ensure that I am investigating other areas of real value and interest."

     Davis, who has a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Arizona, has worked on NASA robotic missions. His 79-page Air Force study seriously explored a series of possibilities, ranging from "Star Trek"-style travel to transportation via so-called wormholes in the fabric of space to psychic travel through solid walls.

     Now at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Austin, Texas, Davis reached both pessimistic and optimistic conclusions in his study. On one hand, he concluded that "Star Trek"-style teleportation faces enormous obstacles, partly because it would require the development of extraordinarily high-speed computers and would consume mind-boggling amounts of energy. Also, it would encounter all kinds of physics headaches generated by the principles of quantum physics.

     For example, the computing-encoding of the entire contents of a human body would require 10 to the 28th (the number one followed by 28 zeroes) kilobytes of computer storage capacity. It would take 100 quintillion of the world's best commercially available hard drives "to store the encoded information of just one human being."

     Also, "it will take more than 2,400 times the present age of the universe (about 13 billion years) to access this amount of data" from the computers, Davis writes. And "to heat up and dematerialize one human being would require . .. the energy equivalent of 330 one-megaton thermonuclear bombs."

     Such teleportation also raises troubling moral issues: Would teleportation successfully reconstitute not only a person's body but their "consciousness (personality, memories, hopes, dreams, etc.) and soul or spirit?" Davis's study asks. "This question is beyond the scope of this study to address."

     However, Davis expressed great enthusiasm for research allegedly conducted by Chinese scientists who, he says, have conducted "psychic" experiments in which humans used mental powers to teleport matter through solid walls. He claims their research shows "gifted children were able to cause the apparent teleportation of small objects (radio micro-transmitters, photosensitive paper, mechanical watches, horseflies, other insects, etc.)."

     If the Chinese experiments are valid and could be repeated by American scientists, Davis told The Chronicle in a phone interview Thursday, then, in principle, the military might some day develop a way to teleport soldiers and weapons. In principle, it could teleport "into a cave in Afghanistan and kill bin Laden instantly, or bring him back to justice."

     Davis' study was released by the Air Force Research Lab in August 2004 and, at the time, received only scattered press coverage. A Chronicle reporter decided to revisit the study -- and the larger political questions it raises -- after an employee of a U.S. Navy research lab confidentially sent a copy of Davis' entire report to The Chronicle.

     In a phone interview last week, Adams, the Air Force official, said that at present, the agency is "not pursuing" teleportation as a potential military tool. "This was a study of overall physics phenomena or capabilities that might be deemed by many (as) futuristic ... . If you don't turn over the rocks, you don't know what's underneath. We didn't find anything (in the study) which was deemed pursuable (for a possible military tool).

     "But if we don't explore these things," Adams continued, "we don't know when we might have a possibility of a near-term breakthrough, or something that we might be able to address for future needs that would help us (militarily) ... . That's our story, and we're sticking to it," he concluded.

     In interviews, some experts on military funding policy suggested that maybe the Air Force doesn't take teleportation seriously, but wants any enemies to think that it does so they'll waste fortunes studying it.

     "The strategy is to get China to waste money on things that we know are not feasible, while discouraging them from working on things that we believe to be quite promising," said John Pike, a veteran defense policy analyst in the Washington, D.C., area. He cites the military's bankrolling of research on an allegedly novel source of energy called hafnium isomers: "The U.S. continues to fund work in this field, despite the fact that it contravenes known laws of physics."

     Victor J. Stenger, a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, said: "I didn't realize that President Bush's faith- based initiatives have reached so far as Air Force research projects ... . None of the three forms of teleportation of large objects discussed in this (Davis) report are anywhere near being practical in the foreseeable future and (are) probably ultimately impractical, as a trained physicist can see by just plugging in a few numbers."

     As for the Chinese psychic research, Stenger said the articles on the "Chinese experiments ... . have not been translated into English and so (have) not yet (been) subjected to critical reviews by the scientific community at large."

     Likewise, Michio Kaku, a noted physicist and author at City University of New York, said "the only way to use (teleportation) as a secret weapon is to allow our enemies to bankrupt themselves thinking they can produce a teleportation machine."

     "The Air Force is to be applauded for investigating technologies that may have value for national security," Kaku added. "But wormholes, negative energies, warped space-time, etc., require futuristic technologies centuries to millions of years ahead of ours. The only thing going down the wormhole is taxpayers' money."

More . . .

* Special Thanks To Christian Macé


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