Teleportation: The leap from fact to fiction in new movie Jumper

Actor Christensen, of Star Wars fame, and director Liman discuss teleportation with MIT professors

Fact met fiction last night when a Hollywood actor and director sat down with two MIT physicists to compare the reality of teleportation to the special-effects version in the upcoming movie Jumper.

"It's a little less exotic than what you see in the movie," said Edward Farhi, director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at MIT. "Teleportation has been done, moving a single proton over two miles. [But] teleporting a person? That is pretty far down the line. The quantum state of a living creature is pretty formidable. That is just not in the foreseeable future."

It is, however, in the foreseeable future in the Hollywood world of lights and special effects. Jumper, which is scheduled to be released on Feb. 14, is a sci-fi thriller about a man, played by Hayden Christensen, who discovers he has the ability to teleport himself anywhere, anytime. There's no old-fashioned Star Trek-like "Beam me up, Scottie" in this movie. The character simply wills himself to "jump" from one place to another.

Of course, nothing can be that easy in an action-adventure thriller. Christensen's character discovers that he's not the only Jumper alive and that there's a secret organization of people sworn to kill all Jumpers because they believe the teleporters' ability makes them a danger to everyone else. Actor Samuel L. Jackson plays the man in charge of tracking down and killing the Jumpers.

While the movie, directed by Doug Liman, may have taken the reality of teleportation and spiced it up quite a bit, Christensen, who gained fame and heart-throb status playing Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episodes II and II, told Computerworld that it's an alluring fantasy.

"I've always been a sci-fi fan. I like things that stimulate the imagination," he said before clips of the movie were screened for the MIT audience. "Obviously, I think there's great appeal to be able to be where you want, whenever you want. You could escape anything you need to escape."

And what situation would he like to teleport out of the most? "I might be home right now," he said, laughing. "Just kidding. Just kidding. Well, I'd at least like to be somewhere warm."

Hayden Christensen and Doug Liman

Doug Liman, left, director of the film Jumper, and Hayden Christensen, the film's star, discuss the science of teleportation at MIT. Photo by Sharon Gaudin.

Liman, who joked about doubting his decision to appear at MIT, where the technology in his movie could be ripped apart, said he tried to find a source of reality in the science behind teleportation. "When we started Jumper, I got hooked up with a professor at the University of Toronto," said Liman, who traveled to 14 countries and 20 cities to make the movie. "He basically threw me out of his office. He didn't have much of a sense of humor about what we were doing."

The science still intrigues the director, who said he would recommend that would-be directors go to a school like MIT instead of to film school. "Sitting here listening to your professors, I got five movie ideas in the bathroom and two ideas for sequels," said Liman. "This is where great ideas for films are born, so this is far more important than film school."

And the science obviously intrigues the professors and students at MIT, which may be one of the few places where professors get the same raucous hoots, foot stomping and cheers as a Hollywood star and a famed director. Farhi and Max Tegmark, an associate professor of physics at MIT, can separate fact from fiction when it comes to wormholes, time travel and teleportation.

Quantum teleportation, Farhi explained to the audience, entails destroying something in its original place and re-creating it somewhere else. To do this with an electron, for instance, scientists would need to have another electron, basically a mate, in place where they wanted the first electron to appear. That second electron would receive the essence of the first electron.

"Quantum teleportation has occurred in the laboratory," Farhi added. "They've moved single particles over two miles, but there is no instantaneous transportation. You could just pick it up and move it much more easily, but that would be less exotic … and cheaper."

Right now, Farhi said, scientists are still experimenting with teleporting single protons or electrons. The next step would be to teleport a more complex object, like an atom. When that might happen, the theorist just isn't sure.

"I don't think distance will be the problem," he said. "The issue will be the size of the object."

Farhi also said he would have no interest in being able to teleport like the character in Jumper, even if it were possible.

"No. No. Once you destroy the quantum state of the object, the thing is gone," he explained. "If you mess up the teleportation, then you're a goner."

Tegmark noted that there is a major benefit to sci-fi movies like Jumper.

"People watch movies and get all fired up to be scientists," he said. "Sometimes I watch sci-fi and it raises interesting questions. When you walk up to a door and it automatically opens, it's because someone watched Star Trek. … Sci-fi can get kids interested in learning about science."

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