Science Behind the Fiction: What would it take to become the Jeff Goldblum monster in The Fly?

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Apr 17, 2018

There are certain technologies so incredible, so beyond the boundaries of ordinary human existence, as to inspire fear and wonder in equal measure. Invisibility, time travel, and teleportation are the types of scientific possibilities promised in some undefined future, they are the stuff of legend. And it's no wonder they've been the foundation for any number of science fiction tales, more often than not, ending in tragedy.

Fiction is littered with stories of humanity overstepping the decent boundaries of scientific discovery to catastrophic results. As Dr. Ian Malcolm is famous for saying, we are often so preoccupied with whether or not we can, we don't stop to think if we should. Maybe it's just that those make the best stories, or maybe there really are forbidden scientific fruit.

Humanity has a long history of thinking the latest breakthrough will be the end of us. In 1825, at the opening of the first public steam locomotive railway, there were concerns that traveling at such high speeds (30 miles per hour) might result in the gruesome deaths of anyone on board. That was, of course, nonsense. Maybe there aren't any forbidden fruit, maybe we're just afraid of what we don't yet understand.

One of the most gruesome examples of future tech fear is the 1986 teleportation film, The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg and starring Jeff Goldblum. In it, a scientist named Seth Brundle creates a set of "telepods" capable of transporting matter from one pod to another instantaneously. Brundle has mastered teleporting inanimate objects but any attempts at transporting living tissues have been… less successful. In an early scene, Brundle attempts to teleport a baboon. The animal makes the trip but... is a blubbering puddle of suffering and screams when it arrives.

Brundle doesn't stop there. Committed to perfecting his telepods, and motivated by the potential of lost love, he reconfigures and succeeds in transporting a second baboon. Buoyed by his achievement, Brundle does what any self-respecting mad scientist would do: He transports himself. What he doesn't know is that a common housefly made its way into the pod with him. In an attempt to rectify the two sets of data, the telepods merge them into one being, thus, Brundlefly is born.

What follows is the pinnacle of Cronenbergian storytelling, which is to say it's the stuff nightmares are made of. Brundle notices no ill effects at first. In fact, he feels better than ever. But slowly the fly's genome asserts itself until Brundle is unrecognizable. Finally, in an attempt to save himself, Brundle teleports again and this time he's fused with the telepod itself. Suffering and horribly disfigured, Brundle is killed in an act of mercy by the woman he loves.

The Fly is a sci-fi horror flick showcasing the dangers of teleportation and messing with our DNA. The film's thesis is pretty clear, there are some things humanity just isn't meant to meddle with. But that hasn't stopped the world's scientists from trying. After all, Brundle's troubles might have been avoided had he gone through the rigors of peer review.

Teleportation in miniature

The holy grail of travel tech. Teleportation promises an end to commute times and long trans-oceanic flights. More than a century on since the first powered flight, we've grown weary of waiting fifteen whole hours to get to the other side of the planet. And what of longer distances like traveling to other bodies in the solar system? With teleportation, we need wait no longer than the length of the queue at the telepod before we get where we're going.

So, how's that coming, anyway? Good! Sort of. But also, not so good.

You may remember seeing headlines last year that scientists had successfully teleported something from Earth to an orbiting satellite. And that's true, in a manner of speaking. Scientists in Tibet were able to transport something 870 miles to an orbiting satellite. But it wasn't a person and it wasn't cargo. It wasn't anything tangible, really. It was the quantum state of a photon.

At the moment (and for the foreseeable future) our teleportation ability is limited to quantum information. While impressive, it's teleportation in name only. The process involves transferring the quantum state of one particle to another identical particle. It's accomplished by entangling a pair of particles, in this case, 870 miles apart.

Entanglement is a phenomenon wherein two or more particles remain connected irrespective of distance and actions performed on one affect the whole system. Quantum teleportation takes advantage of this relationship. Whatever is done to the local particle is also done to the distant one.

Quantum teleportation works using three particles, two of which are entangled and create transmission channel. By measuring the local entangled particle (in this case, on Earth) and the free particle, the other entangled particle (on the satellite) is able to take on the state of the free particle. The rub is that once the state of the free particle is transmitted, it is erased locally. Thus, the information is essentially transported instantaneously across vast distances, or teleported.

It's important to understand, however, that nothing physical is actually moved. The local particles are still local and the distant particle is still distant. What's moved is the information. When the process was first developed in 1993 it was called telepheresis, but that isn't near as catchy.

In order to teleport a person using this method, scientists would need to be able to measure the exact states of every particle that makes up your body and transfer that information to distant particles. You wouldn't physically be moved but your information would. An identical copy of you would appear at the arrival point while the initial you would cease to be you, all your discreet information lost.

Forgetting how impossibly difficult calculations of that magnitude would be, you'd then be faced with the existential question of what makes you, you. Is there something innate that makes you who you are or are you simply your quantum information? Luckily, you won't likely have to find an answer to that question any time soon.

So you want to be a BrundleFly

What if you want to skip the whole telepod nonsense and jump right into being a mutated mammal/insect hybrid? Mapping and editing the human genome has been the holy grail of biology for years.

With tens of thousands of protein-coding genes, we've struggled to understand what they do and how they impact the way we live, even after fully sequencing our genome in 2003. And now that we have the information, the race is on to find out how to manipulate it to our benefit.

That task became considerably easier (though still difficult) in recent years with the emergence of CRISPR, a method of targeting and altering specific parts of DNA (you'll recognize it if you just saw Rampage, funnily enough). CRISPR, an acronym meaning Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, was first discovered in bacteria. Researchers found parts of the bacterial genome which repeated. The repeats acted as a guide for molecular scissors called cas9 that would cut away a part of the bacteria's DNA and replace it with foreign DNA from malicious viruses.

In essence, it behaved as a sort of rudimentary immune system. When a bacteria was threatened but lived, it would cut away a piece of the DNA from the attacker and insert it inside itself. If that same attacker was encountered again, it knew how to defend itself. That discovery is interesting enough on its own, but researchers saw the potential and figured out how to use the same process as a tool.

Using CRISPR systems, we can now efficiently direct the modification of DNA within a cell. This opens up all kinds of possibilities for fighting diseases or preventing congenital defects in fetuses.

Even with this incredible tool, it isn't likely you'd be able to alter your own genome any time soon. And once that gate is open, the number of modifications you'd need to make to turn yourself into a six-foot fly would be staggering, not to mention gross. But given enough time and improvements in the medical technology, it would be surprising if the future didn't include simple and affordable genetic modifications for use both before and after birth, readily available to the public.

Even without the cut, copy, paste process of teleportation, future generations will have to grapple with the philosophical question of what it means to be you, and what it means to be human.