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David Darling's Newsletter #1


July 1, 2002


1. Welcome
2. The perils of beaming up
3. Countdown to Spaceflight

1. Welcome

Some people start a newsletter, then build a web site, then try their hand at writing a book. For me, it's been the other way round. After my last couple of books, "The Extraterrestrial Encyclopedia" and "Life Everywhere", I fired up the Astrobiology Central web site (or rather, my soon-to-be son-in-law did – thanks Murray!). And now, finally, comes the Newsletter. I'm planning to send one out every couple of weeks to begin with, but this may change as it develops. It will be chattier than my web site, which tends to stick just to the facts, without too much speculation. It'll also carry more news about my upcoming books, radio interviews, and so forth. Send me an e-mail if there's anything you'd like covered.

2. The perils of beaming up

Star Trek's transporters may seem like a handy way of avoiding tedious shuttle journey's to and from planetary surfaces (although the latest series, Voyager, gets by without them). But could they ever come true? Researchers in Australia have just taken a tiny but important step toward practical teletransportation: they've managed to make a beam of laser light disappear at one point in a lab and reappear a short distance away.

Teletransportation, much to the delight of science fiction fans everywhere, has become a hot subject in physics, with about 40 labs around the world actively running experiments on it. A lot is at stake – and not just for James T. Kirk and his famous line "Beam me up, Scotty." The ability to teleport light and matter would revolutionize telecommunications, encryption, and computing.

What the Australian team has done is tap a weird phenomenon called quantum entanglement, or what Einstein tagged "spooky interaction" (but then he never did quite believe in the stranger aspects of quantum theory.) Basically, quantum entanglement means that two photons that are created together, at the same time, remain linked somehow even if they get separated by huge distances. It's as if they have an open subspace com channel so that they can keep in touch, even if they're light-years apart. If anything happens to one photon, the other immediately reacts to this change. In the Australian set-up, an encoded signal is embedded in an input stream of billions of photons, which is entangled with another beam. Even after the original beam is destroyed, its entangled replica can be reconstructed some distance away. Visit the Australian National University's photonic lab's web site.

Doing the same thing to a human being is a slightly more ambitious (and risky!) exercise. It would mean scanning the exact position of every subatomic particle in a person, entangling the information, destroying the original, and recreating a perfect copy somewhere else. Quite apart from the physics, it raises some interesting philosophical questions – especially what it means to be an individual. Say human teleportation becomes possible. Are you really the same person as the copy that materializes at the other end? What happens to your soul – assuming we have one? What happens if there's a transporter malfunction (sound familiar)? After all, the original may not be destroyed and then there'd be two of you. But which of the two would "you" end up in? Hmm. Perhaps we should stick to shuttles after all!

3. Countdown to Spaceflight

At some point in the mid 40s (age and books!) I lost count of how many books I'd written. Anyhow, one more – the biggest and, hopefully, the best – is about to be added to the total. November sees the publication of "Spaceflight: From Apollo 1 to Zero Gravity" from John Wiley & Sons. I won't tell you what a wonderful book it is, because you might think me biased. Suffice it to say it will be the most up-to-date, panoramic book on space travel and exploration available. And just in time for Christmas! More on this in the weeks ahead.

Until next time,
All the best,
David Darling