In a step toward making ultra-powerful computers, scientists have transferred physical characteristics between atoms by using a phenomenon so bizarre that even Albert Einstein called it spooky.
Such "quantum teleportation" of characteristics had been demonstrated before between beams of light.
The work with atoms is "a landmark advance," H.J. Kimble of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and S.J. van Enk of Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., declare in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
Two teams of scientists report similar results in that issue. One group was led by David J. Wineland of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., and the other by Rainer Blatt of the University of Innsbruck in Austria.
Teleportation between atoms could someday lie at the heart of powerful quantum computers, which are probably at least a decade away from development, Wineland said. Although his work moved information about atomic characteristics only a tiny fraction of an inch, that's in the ballpark for what would be needed inside a computer, he said.
His work involved transmitting characteristics between pairs of beryllium atoms, while the Austrian work used pairs of calcium atoms. Each atom's "quantum state," a complex combination of traits, was transmitted to its counterpart.
Key to the process was a phenomenon called entanglement, which Einstein derided as "spooky action at a distance" before experiments showed it was real.
Basically, researchers can use lab techniques to create a weird relationship between pairs of tiny particles. After that, the fate of one particle instantly affects the other; if one particle is made to take on a certain set of properties, the other immediately takes on identical or opposite properties, no matter how far away it is and without any apparent physical connection to the first particle.