Why the Transporter Will Never Work (thank god!)

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!

bad kirkevil-spock

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:bones mad

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.



Teleportation or an Improved Telegraph?

Well, neither, really.

This article from Elite Daily may be the worst excuse for science writing I have come across in a long time.  The headline reads “This Scientific Breakthrough May Have Laid The Groundwork For Human Teleportation.”


No, it hasn’t.  No, no, no, no.

First of all, there is the total mess that the author of the post makes of the actual claims being made.

The lead sentence of the article is this:

Dutch scientists have unlocked the secret to the sci-fi phenomenon of teleportation, successfully causing an atom to vanish and reappear nearly 10 feet away.

Fine.  Maybe they have.  But it is puzzling that the very next sentence says this:

The Irish Times reports that a team led by Professor Ronald Hanson of Delft University conducted a demonstration in which information encoded into sub-atomic particles was teleported between two points with 100 percent accuracy for the very first time.

And, to make things worse, later the article tells us that:

The last attempt to teleport quantum information, conducted in Maryland in 2009, did have a success rate but only once every 100 million tries.

I’m still trying to figure out the difference between something working one time out of 100 million and it happening by sheer statistical coincidence.

lottery balls

After all, there is that whole “infinite number of monkeys” issue.Monkeys

So, what’s the story?  Did an atom disappear in one spot and then show up in another, or, for the first time ever, did information get “teleported” from one spot to another, or did it happen again after having happened in Maryland in 2009?  Enquiring minds want to know, and The National Inquirer had better editorial standard than Elite Daily, which is, embarrassingly, “The Voice of Generation-Y.”  If these children are the future, we’re in some trouble.

 school for the gifted

The articles want us to believe that we’ll be beaming around the universe in no time.  Just remember not to wear a red shirt on the trip.

But even the scientist cited in the interview is unwilling to go this far:

If you believe we are nothing more than a collection of atoms strung together in a particular way, then in principle it should be possible to teleport ourselves from one place to another…In practice it’s extremely unlikely, but to say it can never work is very dangerous…I would not rule it out because there’s no fundamental law of physics preventing it. If it ever does happen it will be far in the future.

Actually, I think the danger lies in letting people believe that such technologies are within reach at all is what is dangerous.  The idea that we’ll get to the point where Star Trek technologies will let us have unlimited energy and undo the harm we are doing to the planet dulls people’s mind to the fact that we are on a massively unsustainable course right now.  And this article, its source and the numerous recaps of it circulating on the Internet are classic examples of what I call utopian porn.

The Irish Times article is scarcely any better (and in some ways it is worse), but one of the main problems here is that the researchers themselves are saying silly, silly things.  Quantum entanglement is what’s being investigated here.  The existence of quantum entanglement, which is somewhat controversial, would entail that information could be transmitted instantaneously, a violation of one of the pillars of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which has as a consequence the law that information cannot be transmitted faster than the speed of light.


It is possible to generate entangled particles, for example, two paired particles with opposite spins.  We know that, according to quantum mechanics, if particle A’s spin is up, particle B’s must be down and vice versa.  However, before a measurement is made, it is a consequence of quantum physics that neither particle has any spin whatsoever.  Since the particles are entangled, even if we move them far, far apart from one another, the moment we measure the spin of A, we know the spin of B.  That is, we get instantaneous information about the way things are in a distant region of spacetime.  Instantaneously, not speed-limited by the velocity of light.

Demonstrating a reliable way of exploiting quantum entanglement would be groundbreaking in physics.    I’ll even grant for argument’s sake that this is what the Dutch scientist, Ronald Hanson, has done.  But demonstrating the instantaneous transfer of information from point-to-point is not at all the same thing as moving an atom from one point to another in no time at all.  Let alone a human body or even a potato.  (To see a great CBC cartoon about the implications of real teleportation, look here.)

So in one brief interview, Hanson goes from saying that if we are just made up of atoms then it is possible we can have Star Trek-like transporters someday to admitting that the main use of this information-transfer experiment will have to do with computing, a better internet and increased cyber security.  Those last three things are good enough to want, but the insatiable need of the bad science writers to sexy things up pushes the headlines and the scientists themselves to make very silly and confused claims, indeed.  And it reinforces the harmful notion that the gee-whiz, there’s-no-need-to-worry-about-real-problems-facing-us future is just around the corner.