The real, true history of teleportation

In fiction, anyway.

The real, true history of teleportation

Image source: Igor Karasi/Shutterstock/Big Think

  • People have been intirgued with teleportation for over a century.
  • These days, our tech entitlement is making some of us impatient to start beaming ourselves all over the place.
  • The Thotheen could do it, why not us?

People are fascinated with the idea of near-instantaneous travel, or teleportation. What could be sweeter than stepping onto a platform during a frigid winter day and stepping off it into Hawaiian sunshine? Sign us up right now. We're not talking about quantum teleportation, mind you, which is something else. We're talking about that fictional mode of transportation that zaps us from one place to another, a la Star Trek.

Star Trek dates from the 1960s, but, really, the idea has been around for a long time in one form or another.

Matter transfer

Image source: CreateSpacePublishing

  • The very first mention of a teleportation-like device in fiction appears to have been in Edward Page Mitchell's The Man Without a Body, published in The Sun, a New York City daily, in 1877. Mitchell's teleportation was actually referred to by another name, "matter transfer." This was three years after H.G. Wells wrote anonymously about a "tachypomp," a device designed to travel at "infinite speed" — not quite teleportation, but clearly en route to one as a concept.

Teleportation's first use as a way to hop from one planet to another popped up in Fred T. Jane's 1897 science-fiction parody, To Venus in Five Seconds. In the satire, two Venutian species, the humanoid Sutenraas and the Thotheen — interestingly described as a cross between an elephant and a horsefly — used matter transfer to zip around Venus and also make quick trips to our planet, where they beamed themselves between the Egyptian pyramids and Mexico. While Jane never describes the tech behind his matter transfers, it would presumably have been more science-y than Edgar Rice Burroughs' means of getting to Mars: wishing.

The word "teleportation" first appeared in the writings of one Charles Fort, whose raison d'etré was unexplained phenomena. Teleportation could be involved, he suggested, in the way objects show up in surprising places and also might explain the sudden disappearances and reappearances of people via in alien abduction. (He was an early proponent of extraterrestrial visitation.) Fort also wrote about frogs raining down from the sky, spontaneous combustion, ball lightning, and so on.

"Mostly in this book I shall specialize upon indications that there exists a transportory force that I shall call 'Teleportation."' — Fort's Lo!, 1931

Writers knew a catchy idea when they saw one, and teleportation went on to become a tried-and-true trope in movies:

  • Buck Rogers — The classic 1933 serialized stories that didn't intend to be campy.
  • Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory — See young Mike Teavee transport over other characters' heads and into a TV.
  • The Fly — Sorry, your teleport's not working so well: It turned you into an insect.
  • Galaxy Quest — Teleportation is a terrifying, definitely iffy operation in this hilarious ode to sci-fi.
  • Jumper — Great instant-travel effects in the thriller that proves Hayden Christensen can actually act. (Cough, Darth Vader.)
  • "Logan's Run" — Characters use teleportation for futuristic booty calls.
  • X-Men — In X2 and X-Men:Last Stand, Alan Cumming's Nightcrawler certainly gets around.

And on TV:

  • Twilight Zone — A teleporting character is forced to consider whether instantaneous travel would benefit or harm humanity if revealed. Bad guys and warriors popping up out of nowhere would be a bad thing, right?
  • Doctor Who — We want a teleportation bracelet made from Aquatar, but not the ones humans make. Aliens make the good ones.
  • Charmed — People and demons, also Whitelighters, are popping in and out all the time in both generations of this show.
  • Heroes — In this series, some characters can teleport and move through time, while others can only teleport. Losers.
  • Fringe — I'm not crying, you're crying. One of the series' most moving episodes, "White Tulip" involves a scientist who teleports back and forth through time seeking forgiveness.
  • Stargate SG-1 — What do you think happens when you go through a stargate?
  • Star Trek — But of course.

Why do we so badly wish  teleportation was real?

Image source: ImageFlow/Shutterstock/Big Think

It's easy to understand why writers love teleportation. Moving characters around can be an arduous, pace-killing problem, especially when the plot demands that they traverse large distances. The poor teleportation-less spacetrotters of Star Wars have to pretty much drive from one end of the galaxy to another (usually via a time-saving screen wipe.)

But what about its appeal to the rest of us?

Some of it undoubtedly comes from our societal sense of tech entitlement as we see so many sci-fi tropes becoming real. Though not generally available, there are flying cars, jet packs, invisibility cloaks, and even 3D printers that produce food in a manner not so very different than replicators.

The most obvious "real" thing teleportation would offers us is effortless mobility, an experience of increasing rarity as air travel becomes more and more difficult for the average person, with cancellations, delays and experiences that seem designed more for the benefit of the airline than us. Slower modes of travel — cars, busses, trains — are typically cheaper, but take so much time. And as long as we're using our imaginations here, maybe teleportation would be safer, too?

One genuinely cool use of teleportation would be making it easier — or even possible in the first place — for people with mobility issues to get from place to place.

Then there's the exploration of remote locations, from uncharted places on Earth to distant planets we may otherwise never reach in a single generation, if at all.

Finally, maybe we can just let climate change ruin Earth and migrate via teleportation en mass. just in time, to some new world we can destroy. Hey, when science sees a dim future ahead, there's alway sci-fi.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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