Monday, September 13, 2010

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

Rumor has it that Gene Roddenberry got the idea for the transporter in Star Trek from the movie The Fly, and that it was done that way to save both the screen time and set cost of shuttle landings. It was a pretty ingenious idea, and paved the way for transporter devices to become part of mainstream science fiction. Of course, they never really explained how it worked on the original series, and that was smart, because no satisfactory explanation exists given our understanding of the laws of physics today. This entry is dedicated to the impossible ubiquity of transporter devices.

When I reached the age where I needed explanations of some sort to help suspend my disbelief, I figured that transporters could only work using some sort of quantum teleportation technology. This is a real phenomenon based on something called the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) effect. You can read an overview about it here. For single particles, you can instantaneously transfer the quantum state of one object to another over a seemingly unlimited distance. The original Star Trek got something right in this respect, because the transported objects would freeze on the transporter and then appear in exactly the same configuration at the destination. Thus, the quantum state of a person's entire body was supposedly being preserved during transit. But there are many problems with trying to extend this effect to large objects. For one, even the EPR effect does not transport matter, only information, so it requires a duplicate substrate of matter on the other side. Second, the effect is destroyed once you get above the quantum level, which means it can only be done for a few small particles at a time. Trying to extend the effect to large objects would require enormous amounts of energy. I mean, we're talking about many times the entire output of the sun.

Then along comes The Next Generation and they try to pass off some fax machine type explanation for the transporter. They actually claim that a person's entire body is scanned down to the atomic, even quantum, level and then 'reconstructed' at the destination. This truly lame explanation now renders impossible any hope of suspending disbelief. Let me indulge myself. First, they still have the substrate problem. A fax needs ink and paper on the other side to reconstruct a copy of the original document. Also, the original still remains so it must be completely annihilated somehow. That sounds pretty painful. The human body is dynamic, so its entire state must be measured in one shot, kind of like a "snapshot" of you which includes both the position and velocity of all the atoms in your body. But that is physically impossible to achieve thanks to the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, which states that you can't extract both position and velocity information at the quantum level simultaneously. The TNG advisors actually try to explain this by making up something called a Heisenberg compensator device without any detail about its operation other than what the name implies. How lazy is that? Even if you could know the velocities of every particle, how could you set them in motion at the destination? In other words, how do you start the blood flowing and the heart beating, etc.? What nonsense! And yet, all the subsequent spinoffs maintain this type of explanation.

None of these problems go away by suggesting that the transported matter is converted to energy and then back into matter at the destination point. The information still needs to be encoded somewhere, and now you have the additional problem of how to contain all that energy. I just did the calculation, and 1 kg of matter equates to 1427 Hiroshima bombs. The average human weight is 80 kg. You do the math.

But no matter how impossible the technology, I do give credit to a writer who can at least find an interesting twist regarding the consequences of obtaining that technology. Probably the most interesting in this case is the possibility of duplicating a human being. There are several Star Trek episodes that explore this idea, like the duplicate Kirk in The Enemy Within, or the duplicate Lt. Riker in Second Chances.
But these treatments are not anywhere near as thought-provoking as the Outer Limits episode oddly entitled Think Like A Dinosaur. In it, humans can transport to other planets using a technology developed and operated by emotionless aliens (who happen to look dinosaur-like). It is a duplication technology that creates a copy of the person on the other side and then destroys the original. It is a temporarily painful operation, as might be expected. The transport happens from an isolated station on the moon with a human coordinator who helps to prepare the travelers. A supposed malfunction causes a woman's transport to be aborted, and she decides to go home because the experience was too traumatic. Later, it is found out that her duplicate got successfully created on the other side. The aliens ask the human coordinator to "balance the equation" by killing the woman left behind. As difficult as it seems, he must go through with it for a greater good, which is not to jeopardize the human's access to the alien technology. This access is rendered so important because of a ravaged earth back home, and since that includes his own family, it is personal too. After a heart wrenching sequence of events, he finally decides to trick her into being blown out of a space bay. Two years later, when the duplicate returns and remembers him as her coordinator, he chooses to feign ignorance. Is it because he is so overwhelmed with guilt about betraying her, even though she knows nothing of it? Or did the experience harden his soul to the point that he has become like the aliens, and is incapable of feeling guilt, or love, any longer? Wow! Although a bit contrived, it plays out nicely. You can watch it on Hulu here.

As a final note, the whole idea of technologically duplicating a person brings about the question of the soul and consciousness. If you believe, as I do, that our conscious awareness is not a physical entity, and not a consequence of physical processes, then you also must believe there is no physical way to duplicate it. If it were at all possible to teleport inanimate matter, I truly believe that any attempt to transport a human being would produce a lifeless body on the other side, with no hope of reviving it back to life. Any other outcome would require some sort of supernatural intervention.

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