David Robert Jones is back causing mayhem. In last night's episode of Fringe, "Ability," the villainous mystery man tries to kill with an affliction that causes hyperactive scar tissue, which closes all the victim's orifices, so they can't breathe. But to execute his murderous plan, he needs to first spring himself from a German prison using a fantastically sci-fi weapon (a stolen design from our mad scientist, Walter Bishop): a disintegration-reintegration ray. This scenario may be equal to the standard of truth-stretching that we know and love in Fringe—neither Mr. Jones nor any other person will be teleported from place to place anytime soon. But there is a bizarre real-life analogue for this Star Trek tech. Just as when bank robbers walked through walls in "Safe," four episodes ago, Fringe borrows from weird phenomena that actually happen at the quantum level. Then, it was quantum tunneling, but this week it's something just as odd: quantum teleportation.
Teleportation on the quantum scale is about moving information, not zapping a person in one place and having them reappear in another. In 1998, scientists at Caltech, building on research done five years earlier at IBM, accomplished the first quantum teleportation. The Caltech researchers scanned the quantum information contained in a photon—the particle that carries light—and created a replica of it more than three feet away, at the end of a cable. Since then more and more physicists have played the teleportation game. Austrian researchers teleported the information from a laser beam in 2002. Four years later, scientists in Denmark took that one step further, teleporting the info inside a laser beam's photons into a cloud of atoms.
As PM explained last year, when the film Jumper came out, teleportation would not be possible without entanglement, a peculiar principle of quantum mechanics. Simply, two objects can be linked even when spatially separated, so that if you know the spin of one, you can know the spin of the other without even looking at it. This is particularly handy for physicists trying to work around the Heisenberg uncertainly principle, which holds that you can't look at a particle without changing it. You couldn't teleport a photon's information if you couldn't look at it, but thanks to entanglement, you don't need to—you can just look at its partner. However, Heisenberg' principle also means that the original photon's information must be destroyed as soon as it is teleported to the replica, according to University of Toronto physicist David Harrison's introduction to quantum teleportation. If that weren't the case, you could know both the polarization and angle, and Heisenberg says that you can't know these two things at once.
The teleportation phenomenon is a mysterious one—Albert Einstein famously hated the idea of entanglement and called it, roughly translated from his German, "spooky action at a distance" or "spooky interaction." But quantum teleportation, like its oddball cousin quantum tunneling, has real world implications. If it could be properly harnessed, the instant information transfer across distance could make the pace of today's high-speed Internet and computing look lethargic by comparison.
But what about human teleportation? It's totally different from information on the quantum level, but it could be possible, at least in theory. Charles Bennett, who was on the IBM team that first discovered the quantum teleportation phenomenon back in 1993, told CNN in 2007 that teleporting a human at least doesn't violate any laws of physics. He envisioned a machine that could do a three-dimensional scan of a person and assemble that information in a another place, though probably not perfectly. That would square with Mr. Jones's statement about his post-teleportation health problems in this episode: "It seems that when one is dematerialized on a molecular level and then reassembled, there are certain unadvertised side effects." However, he seems to imply that Fringe's device uses the standard Star Trek-inspired interpretation of teleportation, in which the person's material is transported and reassembled, not the real-life quantum example, where only information is transported and used to create a replica, while the original is destroyed. In any case, the technology to scan the 1028 atoms in a human body would be far more complex than anything we have today, as would the apparatus to reassemble them.
Walter Bishop solemnly warns, at the conclusion of "Ability," that his teleportation device eventually causes fates worse than death. We'll probably have to wait for future episodes to decode that cryptic remark, as well as the other new elements of "The Pattern" that showed up this week. An apocalyptic manuscript connected to Mr. Jones seems to imply that multiverses—the theory that our universe is one of many, will be coming soon to Fringe. And it appears that Agent Olivia Dunham was treated as a child with an experimental drug from the evil Massive Dynamic corporation, cleverly called "cortexifam" after the brain's cerebral cortex, that might give her some kind of telekinetic power. That might be based on some out-there science, but that's fine with Fringe star Joshua Jackson. At New York's Comic Con this week, he told PM that nothing is off-limits on the show.