Last time, I wrote about the shoddy reporting about quantum mechanics and the supposed promise of teleportation from the effects of quantum entanglement (if that exists). Now I want to write about the very idea of the Star Trek transporter. Let me start by saying that it will never work. Not in the sense that it works fairly unreliably in the shows and movies, often splitting people into good and bad twins or sending them to Bizarro universe or something, but in the sense that nothing like it will ever be a means for getting people from one place to another. And that’s a good thing. We don’t need any more incidents where Kirk is split into decisive, evil Kirk and nice, milquetoast Kirk—that nearly cost us the whole crew of NCC-1701!
And we certainly don’t want to risk beaming someone halfway into a bulkhead, or any of the other transporter tragedies we have seen throughout the series.
No, the reason the transporter in the Star Trek universe won’t is that it is, as described, conceptually impossible.
Nerd Alert—I know there are (at least) two competing theories of the transporter in the Star Trek universe.
Theory 1 In the TV shows and movies, the transporter does…well, let me let Bones describe it in this quote where he is refusing to use the transporter:
No. I signed aboard this ship to practice medicine, not to have my atoms scattered back and forth across space by this gadget.
Yes, the transporter sends your atoms back and forth across space. In some explanations (hey, I said this was a nerd alert) your atoms are converted into tachyons, which travel faster than light, scattered across space and then reconverted into your atoms and then into your body, which, we must assume, is you. Thus, the traditional transported shoots your atoms around space at nearly or more than the speed of light.
That’s the main account of the transporter.
Theory 2 The secondary account, mostly in some of the early novels, is that the transporter is an information processing device that scans (and destroys) your body but sends all the information about you and your composition to a distant place where “you” are rebuilt according to perfectly accurate instructions. (For a glorious animated account of some of the problems this account raises, see this CBC cartoon. Then have a long think about how different Americans and Canadians are.)
Now, elements of both accounts end up in both the books and the movies. The “pattern buffer,” which seems to endorse theory 2, is used as a deus ex machina in a few episodes when the writers need to get a central character back after some disaster. But for the most part, it is (I think) theory 1 for the TV and movie versions.
Let me dispense with the information-transfer version first—if there is only information being sent around the universe, then there must be some mechanism to build the new you on the other end. So, how did the mechanism get there? I guess we had to go set it up, getting “there” by conventional means. So why didn’t we just go there and stay, if that’s where we wanted to be? I know it would speed things up in the future to have these mechanisms in place all over the universe, but it won’t be like in Star Trek where can beam down wherever we please. And, of course, many thinkers believe there is more to us than just some detailed blueprint of where are the particles are, and it is hard to see how that, whatever it is, could move around with this set-up.
Now on to the first and more predominant theory. A baseball weighs about 5 ounces. I’m no pitcher, but I can throw a baseball hard enough that you’d want a glove to catch it with. A major league pitcher can throw the ball hard enough to fracture your skull, let alone your hand. And that’s with throwing the ball roughly 100 miles per hour.
Imagine throwing the baseball at even greater speed, à la this wonderful xkcd episode of What If? The faster the ball goes, the more devastating the consequences, and the ball weighs only 5 ounces. Now think what sending me towards, say, a planet you would do? I weigh 250+ pounds (Dammit, Jim, I’m a philosopher not a body builder!). Accelerating that mass to .9 c and sending it towards a planet would likely be the most significant geological event in that planet’s history. Much of the atmosphere would be stripped away and an extinction level event would be inevitable. Needless to say, I would not survive. So this sort of transporter wouldn’t be a way to places—it would be the most terrifying weapon in the history of terrifying weapons. “People of Earth—Surrender or we will beam Patton down to the surface…”
And all of this still ignores the problem of how my atoms or tachyons get reassembled on the planet’s surface without us having installed some sort of mechanism there…
How fast can we move around the universe? It’s probably going to be limited to the g-force we can survive. We experience g-force whenever we are accelerated, and too much acceleration will kill us. By definition, we experience 1 g of g-force on the soles of our feet when standing on the earth. A fun roller coaster will generate 3-4 gs for short periods, fighter pilots experience up to 9 gs for short bursts and wear pressure suits to make sure that sustained high g maneuvers do not make them black out or die. Sustained g forces over 5 gs are almost certain to cause unconsciousness and the maximum a human being can endure on a rocket sled is 100 gs.
I’m not going to do all the math, but the bottom line is this: our rate of getting from place to place is limited by how much acceleration we can live through, how fast we can ultimately go, and how much deceleration we can live through on the other end of the journey.
So no matter how much we want there to be transporters, there won’t be any like there. Ever. It’s better just to buckle up, and drive a car with airbags. Or take the shuttlecraft in a few centuries.