Best physics inventions of 2009

What a real teleporter looks like. (Photo from the Joint Quantum Institute.)

TIME magazine has announced the 50 best inventions of 2009. NASA’s Ares family of rockets was a shoo-in for best invention, given the recent launch of Ares 1-X, the family’s test rocket. I’ll give them that; NASA could certainly use the cheerleading.

But I was surprised to see “Teleportation” sixth on the list. When did I miss this? Has everyone else been teleporting to work while I’ve been trudging in the rain? How can I get my hands on a teleporter?

When something looks fishy, it’s probably the usual suspect—quantum mechanics. What we’re talking about here is teleporting information, in this case from one atom to another one meter away. Anton Zeilinger, reality-questioner extraordinaire, has accomplished the feat with photons, first in the lab, then across the Danube, then between two Canary Islands. But photons maybe seem a bit too ethereal for TIME magazine; atoms, now there’s a solid piece of matter for ya. The feat with atoms was accomplished at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland. What did they send? A “quantum state.” It may not sound like much, but scientists can encode information into such a state; you could teleport quantum bits across vast distances, as long as they don’t get corrupted along the way. Sounds rather handy now, doesn’t it?

How did the JQI folks do it? The two atoms in question are quantum entangled, so that setting the state of one decides the state of the other. They used two ytterbium ions, isolated in high vacuum cages. With a burst of microwaves, they pushed one ion into a combination of states, then stimulated both ions so that they emitted photons that were then routed through beam-splitters and into detectors. When the photons interacted in a certain way this entangled the two ions.

Once they researchers saw signs of entanglement, they measured the first ion, collapsing the mix of states into one definite states and setting the state of the second ion. This also tells them exactly what microwave burst will get the original information, the mix of states in the first ion, to occur in the second ion, transferring the information from one ion to the other.

Hmmm. In an article in January on the experiment, TIME admitted that it wasn’t exactly show-stopping. But it’s nevertheless pretty cool, and could allow the transmission of a bit that’s not simply a 0 or a 1, as in modern computing, but a mix of the two. That means, down the line, speedier computers. As for “Beam me up, Scotty,” however:

The next step for the JQI team is to improve the photons’ precision and the rate of communication between the particles. What we won’t see soon — or ever, according to Monroe — is a contraption that can teleport humans from one point to another. Sorry, Captain Kirk, but beaming up is a pleasure strictly reserved for atoms. “There’s way too many atoms,” says Monroe. “At the other end of the transporter, you need to have some blob of atoms that represents Captain Kirk but has no information in it. I mean, what would that look like?”

A cloud for 2009: its Latin name means “turbulent undulation.” (Photo from Wired.)

Other noteworthy, physicsy “inventions” of 2009 include a never-before-seen cloud named undulatus asperatus; cloud geeks are fighting for it to be included in the prestigious International Cloud Atlas published by the World Meteorological Organization. I guess Mother Nature wins the invention award for that one—see this page for more weird clouds.

This mouse floats on air. (Photo by NASA/JPL.)

There’s also levitating mice—scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory achieved the feat with superconducting magnets that repelled the water inside the baby mice, apparently to study how long periods of time in zero gravity affect the body. And finally, my personal favorite, the Sky King. This paper airplane, folded from a single sheet of paper by Takuo Toda, chairman of the Japanese Origami Airplane Association, holds the record for longest flight at 27.9 seconds.

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