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.”

Wouldn’t it be neat, they ask, if we could nab bin Laden via teleportation? In “Star Trek,” the characters traveled between spaceship and planet by having their bodies dematerialized, then “beamed” to another locale — hence, the characters’ familiar request to the ship’s engineer: “Beam me up, Scotty.”

That’s teleportation.

Although many physicists think such ideas are claptrap, it would be ideal if the United States could teleport U.S. soldiers into “a cave, tap bin Laden on the shoulder, and say: ‘Hey, let’s go,’ ” said Ranney Adams, spokesperson for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base in the Southern California desert. “But we’re not there (yet).”

Not for want of trying, though. Last year, the Air Force spent $25,000 on a report, titled “Teleportation Physics Study,” to examine possible ways to teleport humans and objects through space.

The military has a long history of funding research into topics that seem straight out of science fiction, even occultism. These range from “psychic” spying to “antimatter”-propelled aircraft and rockets to strange new types of superbombs.

Military-watchers have long argued over whether such studies are wastes of taxpayers’ money or necessary to identify future super-weapons, weapons that a foe might develop if we don’t.

In recent years, many physicists have become excited about a phenomenon called “quantum teleportation,” which works only with infinitesimally tiny particles. It might lead to new ways of transmitting cryptographically secure messages, some speculate, but not human beings for a long time to come, if ever.

“Experts in the field can foresee using teleportation in the area of data encryption but not (at least not in the near future) for the purpose of ‘beaming’ macroscopic (e.g., human-size) objects across” space, said Phil Schewe, a physicist, chief science writer at the American Institute of Physics and author of a forthcoming book, “Bottled Lightning,” on the history of the American electrical grid.

Schewe thinks the government is sometimes justified in funding “offbeat research,” but he is wary of the Air Force teleportation study, prepared by physicist Eric W. Davis.

If the Air Force really thinks such study could lead to actual teleportation devices, “then I would say that something is wrong with the way the Air Force allocates its research money, at least on this topic,” Schewe said.

By Keay Davidson

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