David Rice is a man with a secret, one that he exploits to go from catching a killer wave in Fiji to bedding a gorgeous blonde in London, just by thinking about it. In the new film "Jumper," which opens Thursday, Rice, played by Hayden Christiansen, has a genetic mutation that allows him to "teleport" from place to farflung place instantly, just by thinking about it.
While teleportation has figured prominently in science fiction, from cries of "Beam me up, Scotty" on "Star Trek" to "apparitions" in the "Harry Potter" books, physicists say that teleportation is possible now, at least on a small scale, and the applications for the future are far from fictitious.
But pop culture's depictions of "beaming" people from one place to another have significantly mangled the perception of what's actually possible under the laws of physics. According to physicists, teleportation in its most basic sense is not about sending matter, but about sending information.
"Teleportation is a protocol for sending quantum states from one place to another," said Jeff Kimble, a quantum physics professor at the California Institute of Technology. "What is a quantum state? A quantum state is a mathematical description of all the characteristics that one could learn from measurements."
Basically, according to Kimble, when particles are "teleported" the actual particle is not teleported, but the information about the particle is teleported. In the process of transfer, the particle gets destroyed and then "rebuilt" with the information sent to the other side, Kimble said.
(Are you still with me?)
"We're not sending the material system itself. What we're sending is the quantum state," he said. "We don't send the airplane. We send the specifications of the airplane. It's the same thing as a fax. … We don't send the paper or ink. We send the information."
Scientists have already begun teleporting particles on a very basic level.
The particles can be sent in various ways.
In the late 1990s, physicists began experimenting with teleporting photons, a particle or wave of light without any mass. In 2004, Austrian researchers sent photons through a fiber optic cable underneath the Danube River. In the past few years, that has progressed to moving subatomic particles small distances, such as the width of a hair, according to Kimble.
Despite the progress made in just the last 10 years, teleporting humans would be something for the distant future, if it ever came about, according to Michio Kaku, a co-founder of string field theory, one of the newest branches of a mathematical approach to theoretical physics, and the author of the forthcoming book "Physics of the Impossible."
"Within five years, we begin to teleport a molecule and perhaps in 10 and 20 years, perhaps a virus," Kaku said. "But teleporting a cell is quite difficult. Teleporting people like Dr. Kirk [on Star Trek] is pretty far in the distance."
Still, Kaku is holding out hope.
"There are many labs looking at this," he said. "This whole process was considered impossible seven to eight years ago, but now we're doing it routinely, so who knows?"
Beyond what's possible in teleportation now, there are basic laws of physics that director Doug Liman breaks in the depiction of "jumpers" as they hop from place to place, said MIT physics professor Max Tegmark. One broken law is the most well-known one: E=MC2, Einstein's formula equating energy and mass.