Hollywood meets MIT

Tomorrow sees the release of Jumper, a movie about a young man (Hayden Christensen) who can instantly teleport to anywhere on the planet. He soon discovers this power puts him in the middle of two warring factions: people like him, known as Jumpers; and the Paladin organization, represented by Samuel L. Jackson, who believes Jumpers are a threat and must be destroyed.

Jackson must not have researched his quantum physics, as otherwise he'd know that teleportation inherently involves the act of destruction. It was one of many lessons recently learned at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when Christensen and Jumper director Doug Liman joined two MIT professors on a panel examining the science of teleportation. The presenters attempted to bridge not only fantasy and reality, but also the smart and the savvy. Though Christensen seemed out-of-place on such a cerebral panel, his presence drew a crowd to an evening of high-level science made fun and easy to understand.

Such a combination was nothing new to me, as I've always been a geek enamored of the possibilities promised by science fiction. A Trekkie myself, I've long marveled at the impact teleportation could have on society, leading me to voraciously consume a variety media on the subject. Reading Rainbow revealed Star Trek's transporters to be nothing more than sparkles in a glass of water, but real teleportation won't be so easy. The Star Trek novel Planet X, which took a tricorder to the X-Men mutant Nightcrawler, suggested a marriage between technological innovation and biological evolution, but we don't need mutants or 24th-century technology: all teleportation demands is a mastery of quantum mechanics. Simple, huh?

The only currently known method of nearly-instantaneous transportation is quantum teleportation, which is the act of recreating a quantum state over many miles. An particle's quantum state is scanned, which causes its wave function to collapse at the same time it is recreated elsewhere using quantum entanglement. Think of it like emailing an attachment and then deleting the original: the recipient ends up with a duplicate that isn't the original but should, in theory, be identical.

Hayden Christensen at MIT

For Hayden Christensen, anywhere is possible -- even MIT. Photo by Sharon Gaudin. Quantum teleportation is fact, not fiction: a single photon has been destroyed and recreated over a distance of two miles. The complexity of entire organisms is a formidable barrier to practical teleportation -- and even then, slight quantum discrepancies may be introduced in the process. But at that plane of reality, such minor differences would likely not manifest themselves at a noticeable, physical level. Even if they did, Prof. Tegmark of MIT considers such imperfections acceptable on the path to quantum teleportation. "If Hayden Christensen said he was going to teleport across the room, and he disappeared from one place and reappeared in another except dead -- I would call that a success!"

Though quantum teleportation is becoming a reality, it won't be of the biological variety seen in Jumper, Heroes, and X-Men. Said Prof. Farhi, "I cannot imagine that it is within the realm of science that you could will yourself to violate the laws of physics." Instead look for methods grounded in the reality of quantum mechanics -- though Farhi admits, "You'll be more likely to see lightsabers before teleportation."

Finally, the science was temporarily set aside as the lights dimmed and the screen descended. Four clips from Jumper, the special effects of which were finished just the night before, were screened for the eager audience. Totaling 15 minutes of footage, the clips demonstrated teleportation in a variety of circumstances: virgin outing; personal gain; against an unexpected, but human, foe; and against another jumper.

If these scenes are any indication, the final product promises intriguing characters, surprising plot twists, and believable special effects -- but what sparked my imagination was seeing the implications of fast and easy teleportation. It's not just about moving yourself anywhere; it's about collapsing the illusion of distance. Christensen moves from coordinate to coordinate as easily as you and I travel between adjacent points in the space-time continuum. It makes no different where anything is when it is ultimately only a step away. Teleportation makes your surroundings infinite and robbing a bank as easy as moving a paperweight across your desk. As creative as Hiro Nakamura and Kurt Wagner have been, Christensen looks to really tax the possibilities of this ability.

Though this form of teleportation may be make-believe, Liman engages his audience with elements they can relate to: the moral dilemmas and implications of such awesome power. "I try to find the reality behind my films. When I did The Bourne Identity, I met with a real-life assassin," joked Liman. But it's that sincerity that makes even science fiction films like Jumper more accessible. "The conflicts [in Jumper] were very true and honest, so it wasn't a great leap of the imagination," said Liman of his approach.

The discrepancy between hip Hollywood and brilliant MIT was more comedic than awkward. Liman started to explain how to represent teleportation on screen, but then stopped upon observing the audience was not impressed. "Gee, when I go to other places, I sound very scientific," Liman dryly commented. But if the audience wasn't impressed, Liman certainly was: Just from hearing other students discussing Jumper "when I was in the bathroom, I got two ideas for sequels." That's why he recommended future filmmakers pursue the vigorous education of an institute like MIT instead of film school. Though a sense of narrative and the like are essential skills, it's more important that your "mind be expanded so you have stories to tell -- [and MIT] is where ideas for great films will be borne."

Though Hayden Christensen isn't my first choice with whom to spend Valentine's Day, it certainly can't be any worse than five years ago, when my company was Ben Affleck in Daredevil. So I'll be heading to the theaters as instantaneously as I can. Feel free to jump in!

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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