Operation Traficant


According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Air Force paid $25,000 last year to investigate the teleportation of people and objects. I suspect the money could have been spent much more effectively on a dozen hammers, but a few people have stepped up to defend the research. Here's my favorite argument:

In interviews, some experts on military funding policy suggested that maybe the Air Force doesn't take teleportation seriously, but wants any enemies to think that it does so they'll waste fortunes studying it.

"The strategy is to get China to waste money on things that we know are not feasible, while discouraging them from working on things that we believe to be quite promising," said John Pike, a veteran defense policy analyst in the Washington, D.C., area. He cites the military's bankrolling of research on an allegedly novel source of energy called hafnium isomers: "The U.S. continues to fund work in this field, despite the fact that it contravenes known laws of physics."

Yeah, but who's fooling who? The Chronicle reports that the author of the teleportation study "expressed great enthusiasm for research allegedly conducted by Chinese scientists who, he says, have conducted 'psychic' experiments in which humans used mental powers to teleport matter through solid walls. He claims their research shows 'gifted children were able to cause the apparent teleportation of small objects (radio micro-transmitters, photosensitive paper, mechanical watches, horseflies, other insects, etc.).'" Alas: Another physicist notes that these findings "have not been translated into English and so [have] not yet [been] subjected to critical reviews by the scientific community at large."

NEXT: When Reporters Fire Weapons

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  1. Nice reference to Jim Traficant, poster boy for the coming revolution.

  2. I think it was worth funding some exploratory study on psychic phenomena once upon a time. Just in case.

    The fact that it’s still going on? Ridiculous.

  3. I think the CWA needs to investigate the use of witchcraft by the Pentagon.

    Anyone else thinking of Illuminatus!?

  4. I don’t see why the Chronicle’s description of the excited researcher belies the claim s of the “experts on military funding.”

    If you were going to convince the Chinese you were serious, who else would you put in charge of your project, except a true believer who praises the Chinese’ research?

  5. Joe: It doesn’t belie anything. It just suggests that perhaps the U.S. is chasing a white rabbit released by the Chinese instead of the other way around.

  6. Ah, now I get it. How dastardly and inscrutable.

  7. And magnetic amulets will make the troops invulnerable.

  8. Hey, if Kim Jong Il can shoot 11 holes-in-one on his first-ever golf outing, there’s no doubt in my mind that a lil’ Chinese ingenuity can beam Tscotty anwhere they choose.

  9. [politically incorrect]
    Adam, would that be because of the monolithic kom-i-nism or because all those slanty eyed devils are devious and sneaky?
    [/politically incorrect]

  10. I guess the studies by Targ at the SRI have finally come to fruition.

  11. SHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhh!!! The Chinese are listening.

  12. Anything that relies on the idea that Chinese researchers have found ways to psychically teleport matter and it was published instead of being hushed up and taken over by the PLA strikes me as suspect.

  13. The strategy is to get China to waste money on things that we know are not feasible

    Does this also cover the War on Drugs?

  14. The “get them to waste money by wasting money ourselves” argument is absolutely illogical in the first place. If you try to get your enemy to jump off a cliff by jumping off of it first, then, him jumping off after you won’t save you from plummeting to your demise.

  15. C’mon, Evan, it’s all part of the brilliant chess game of realpolitik that’s going on now. 🙂

  16. Except that “teleportation research” is actually just another form of quantum particle research. Imagine being able to transmit messages using quantum particles that would be uninterceptible.

  17. Xmas-

    I hear what you’re saying, and if they were just looking into quantum teleportation and its relation to new forms of cryptography and computing, I’d have no objections whatsoever. I’ve heard that cryptographic systems using entangled photons are about to hit the market. Quantum cryptography is admittedly a little different, but it’s in the same general field and a perfectly legit area of inquiry for military researchers seeking the best ways to transmit and secure data.

    But some of the stuff in the article makes me think that either:
    1) They’re funding crackpots
    2) They’re doing legit quantum teleportation but are shrouding it in mumbo-jumbo to fake somebody out.

    And if somebody wants to know what “quantum teleportation” is, all I can tell you is that it’s (more or less) a way to manipulate quantum states and send information. There’s nothing Star Trek about it. Beyond that, well, Google is your friend, because I’m so not an expert on that.

  18. Perhaps a transporter accident will split Rumsfeld in two, one personifying his evil half, and the other…
    Never mind.

  19. It’s easier (and even demonstratably possible) to use quantum entanglement to encode messages unbreakably and to detect whether someone’s trying to intercept such messages.

    Thoreau, feel free to jump in if I’ve gotten it wrong – quantum mechanics are an area of science I just never got, even at Sci-Am-reader layman level.

  20. Never mind.

    He’s quick, folks. He’s quick.

  21. Imagine this: An infinite number of Internets, each in a slightly different quantum state, where an infinite number of alternate Reasonoids burn away a number of infinities chatting on an endless array of interdimensional chat boards.

    In a mirror universe, Reason is a totalitarian tome with a (mandatory) readership of 200 million, the editorial staff all have in-house concubines, and Julian has a beard.
    (I hope Nick has the Tantalus Field well hidden…)

  22. Jeff P.,
    Jacob Sullum would have to have some kind of anti-beard. And Nick Gillespe would wear only polyester.

  23. Randolph: “Your agonizer, Mr. Walker!”

  24. Gifted children with telekenetic powers being studied by an Asian government? THAT WAS FROM “AKIRA”! If this kind of thing is going on it would confirm my suspicion that they used a ouija board to find out about the WMDs and are currently investigating state of the art chicken bone reading to capture Osama.

  25. I actually rather agree with this reasoning, quoted from the linked article. (It also contains an interesting typo, which I’ve bolded.)

    Pierre Chao, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said such seemingly bizarre research might be the necessary price that the United States must pay in order to guard its future security.

    “The devil’s bargain that you’re going to take if you’re going to exist in that cutting-edge (scientific) world and use taxpayer dollars is that you’re going to be investigating some pretty goofy things,” Chaos said. “I’m not advocating that ‘psychic teleportation’ is anything real, but I am willing to accept a certain amount of ‘slop’ in the system to ensure that I am investigating other areas of real value and interest.”

    In other words, any organization charged with doing leading-edge research is going to have to at least take a look some areas that seem questionable, in case there is some hidden merit to them. The question is, where do you draw the line and cut your losses if the research seems unpromising?

    BTW, I’ve been looking for an excuse to ask this question of Dr. thoreau:

    thoreau, have you heard anything about a guy named Florentin Smarandache? He’s a Romanian refugee, mathematician, logician, poet and some kind of language guy. (I don’t know what the proper term would be; I don’t think it’s “linguist.”)

    Anyway, one of his ideas is that “there is no speed limit in the universe” and that the postulate that “no physical object can travel faster than the speed of light” is actually a mistaken, semantic misunderstanding of what the theory of relativity actually tells us. I’ve tried to follow some of his reasoning, but it’s frankly way beyond me. It’s also my understanding that the Special Theory of is pretty well supported by experimental evidence. So I wonder if this guy could actually be onto something, or is just a fast-talking crackpot. If you’ve heard of him, and have an opinion, I’d be interested to know what it is.

  26. Oh, links:

    Background on the guy.

    (Has link to his Web page.)

    Theories on the speed of light limit. (Goofy-looking intro page, but has multiple links.)

  27. This article is a piece of biased crap.

    Lets start with the opening paragraph:

    Frustrated that terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden is still on the loose nearly four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, a few military types and their scientific advisers are pondering a “what if” solution straight out of TV’s “Star Trek.”

    Nothing at all in the body of the article backs up the claim that the military is pursuing wild ideas like teleportation because it can’t catch Bin Laden.

    Then we have:
    Victor J. Stenger, a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, said: “I didn’t realize that President Bush’s faith- based initiatives have reached so far as Air Force research projects…”

    Both the Bin Laden assertion and Stenger anti-bush snideness are belied by the fact that the report was commissioned on Jan 30, 2001! To the extent that there was any political involvement in the study it would have originated in the Clinton administration.

    The article further mistypifies the paper[PDF] as “research” when it is in fact a shotgun summation of everything known or suspected about teleportation. I don’t think it is a very good paper mostly because author spends way to much time and gives to much credit to concepts of psychic teleportation but the military wasn’t funding any actual experiments on teleportation. They just hired someone to dredge up everything he could find on teleportation. The military and the government in general commissions such white papers all the time.

    It is legitimate to ask whether the $25,000 was well spent but to try to tar the War on Terror and the Bush administration with it when it is wholly unrelated, just reveals the biases of the “journalist” who wrote it.

  28. um. yeah, thanks, Jean.

  29. Stevo-

    I don’t know the guy. I do know that people have worked out what the equations should predict for speeds faster than light, and objects obeying such equations are called “tachyons.” Mathematically it all works out, but the physics is weird and nobody has observed such things in nature. If he’s just working in that field, well, he’s working on something that’s kind of crazy but at least mathematically consistent with current theories (but not with observations). There are odd but respectable people who do that sort of thing.

    The problem with tachyons is that they can never slow to below light speed, and no regular matter can accelerate above light speed. Light speed is a barrier that separates tachyons from everything else. To cross it requires infinite energy. If this guy is talking about crossing that barrier he’s almost certainly a nut.

  30. I love how some people think that the most important aspect of a teleportation article is its partisan slant.

    Humor value? eh.

  31. Could a transporter malfunction result in a seperation of one’s conservative and liberal sides?
    In the Trek universe, politics are certainly simple enough.

  32. I’ve skimmed through this guy’s paper. Still have it archived on my machine at home, I think. Makes for interesting reading, but you can find far better sci-fi writing at your local Barnes and Noble, and usually for a low-low-low bargain rate of between $5-$20.

  33. Funy, thoreau, I though Shannon brought up a good point. Also, nowhere did she assert that the “most important aspect” of the article was its bias (which was painfully obvious).

    I think such research could be valuable for whatever unforseen side discoveries may result. Considering that a lousy $25,000 was spent gathering information into a report, this doesn’t sound like the most egregious waste of greenbacks I’ve seen today.

  34. “quantum entanglement”…Is it just me, or is it getting hot in here?

  35. thoreau,

    It is the very triviality of the matter that makes the injection of such biases so revealing. Its like stumbling across someone who uses racial epithets in casual conversation. You know immediately that their racism is so deeply ingrained that it just pops out without the prompting of any strong emotion. Likewise, tying this research to the war on terror and then Bush administration, even though it apparently wholly unrelated reveals the Chronicle’s casual biases.

    Worse, while using this article as a stick to advance a political agenda, the reporter misses the bigger questions: (1) Was this 78 page paper worth $25,000? I would say definitely not. (2) Why did it take 3 years to complete? (3) Was the 10 pages spent on psychic teleportation part of the parameters the military set or did the author toss that in on his own? (4) The author of the paper appears to be involved in a lot dodgy projects like zero-point energy. He could easily be a scam artist. Why did the military select such a marginal figure to conduct this literature review?

    I think you could pay a physics grad student $5000 grand and get a much better paper in 90 days. The real story here is they spent several years worth of my income tax contributions producing a piece of crap.

  36. Was this 78 page paper worth $25,000? I would say definitely not.

    That’s something that was eating away at me too. I think I speak for freelance writers everywhere when I say: Nice work if you can get it.

  37. It’s worth noting that the people displaying biases were critical of the report, just like Shannon. Or me.

    If they are determined to spend $25k on some form of teleportation research, they could have added a grad student to a quantum teleportation research group at a DOE lab, NIST, or maybe a DoD lab (national labs frequently include grad students in research groups). That grad student could have worked on quantum cryptography and computation for them. Or they could have bought equipment for a lab that doesn’t take grad students (e.g. an agency that doesn’t want its staff writing up their work and putting it in a university library).

    Los Alamos did cryptography with entangled photons that traversed more than a kilometer of open air a few years ago. I don’t know what the record is today, and I wouldn’t be surprised if efforts are quietly underway at labs that, shall we say, don’t publish all that much. Supposedly fiber-based quantum cryptography systems are or will soon be commercially available, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some specialty systems are also being built and classified.

  38. OTOH, I wonder if this wasn’t the kind of article written about they guy who was trying to invent a steam-powered vehicle when everyone knew that travelling faster than 40MPH was fatal.

    Historically, 99% of everything we’ve proven was impossible has been done.

  39. “The devil’s bargain that you’re going to take if you’re going to exist in that cutting-edge (scientific) world and use taxpayer dollars is that you’re going to be investigating some pretty goofy things,” Chaos said. “I’m not advocating that ‘psychic teleportation’ is anything real, but I am willing to accept a certain amount of ‘slop’ in the system to ensure that I am investigating other areas of real value and interest.”

    Dr. Chao? Dr. Chaos? Either way, it sounds like a fake moniker to me. An alias, if you will. That, or the man is pure evil (historically speaking, in ancient terms the idea of chaos is equivalent to the modern day conception of evil).

  40. Maybe he’s a member of JAM. Or POEE.

  41. This all ties in to the spread of the Wiccan faith among feminists, I just know it!

    Although I, quite frankly, welcome the federal funding of crackpot mysticism and voodoo (moreso than, say, federal funding for the arts or PBS), I still feel that this money could all be put to better use developing the damn commuter jet packs we’ve been waiting on for so long. Come on, man! Where’s my jet pack?


  42. Thanks, thoreau. (And mediageek — I assume you’re referring to Smarandache also.) I know about tachyons vs. normal matter and the speed of light, and I’m roughly familiar with the concept that it’s impossible to accelerate normal matter to the speed of light, let alone beyond it (mass increases to infinity, length shortens to zero, time stops — same thing if you try to decelerate tachyons to STL).

    Smarandache is saying that an accelerating spacecraft could cross the “lightspeed barrier” because he asserts the barrier doesn’t even really exist. He claims that all of us (including Einstein) are only being semantically fooled into thinking that’s what the Theory of Relativity says because of some obscure error in logic. At this point, I’m totally unable to follow his arguments. I was just curious what a real live physicist thought. Sounds like flimflam, possibly unintentional–he may be so confused himself only a better logician than I can untangle his error.

    I only took him seriously because I think he was mentioned on NASA’s Advanced Propulsion Web site. Although come to think of it, I think they said they they were not pursuing “the Smarandache hypothesis” because other ideas were more theoretically sound.

    I have heard of a Portuguese physicist, Joao Magueijo, who postulates that the speed of light may be variable — at certain periods in the universe’s history (early in the Big Bang), and possibly under certain special conditions today (maybe in the vicinity of a cosmic string). He says this would solve some problems about the distribution of matter in the universe. I read Magueijo’s book (Faster Than Light) about VSL, and it helped me understand relativity a little better, but he spends most of the book being pissed at his difficulty in finding receptiveness to his ideas, which is in itself a possible mark of a crank. But he seems to be better known and more highly regarded than Smarandache. (Discover magazine did a feature on Magueijo in April 2003, if that means anything.)

  43. We cannot allow a teleportation gap!

  44. “Magueijo’s book (Faster Than Light) ”

    A must read, for more than the science. “Hey, let’s pay bureaucrats to do NOTHING.” and other philosphic gems.

  45. May I recommend Jon Ronson’s _The Men Who Stare at Goats_, for more along this line…


  46. Stevo-

    I’m not familiar enough with relativity to say if there’s a loophole. I know Special Relativity fairly well, but General Relativity is beyond my grasp. What I do know is that every effort to accelerate particles to extremely high speeds in particle physics experiments has confirmed the predictions of Special Relativity. Now, maybe there’s a loophole involving accelerating reference frames, but that’s beyond my ability. Also, it’s possible that the guy claiming v>c is possible may be sort of on the fringes of science: He does some legitimate stuff, but he also does some things that, well, you gotta wonder. Genius and insanity often maintain an uneasy coexistence.

    As to the theory that c has varied throughout the history of the universe: I’m no cosmologist. I know that cosmologists routinely postulate all sorts of freaky things. For what it’s worth, my understanding is that he proposed a variable light speed to explain problems with cosmological observations. I don’t know how much work he’s done on the implications of his theory in laboratory-scale measurements in the present. I don’t know whether he’s proposing that relativity always applies, it’s just c that varies, or if he’s also proposing that the equations of relativity must be modified (or abandoned?).

    Finally, this is, at this point, “just a theory.” It’s a hypothesis, not an accepted notion. Given how many crazy hypotheses are put forward in cosmology, I wouldn’t put too much stock in any crazy hypothesis until a shitload of data comes in.

  47. Anon,

    You have to hold your reading suggestions until everyone has read what I suggested.

    Thank You.

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