Okay, any Star Trek fan knows that Gene Roddenberry invented the transporters so he wouldn’t have to deal with the special effects necessary to show a landing every time the crew visited a planet. It also cut out any time needed to show the launch, travel time or landing, and that moves the story along. Both of those are smart and good, so let me start by saying, “Gene, that was awesome! And so is the horse you rode in on!”
There’s also the simple fact that, in science fiction, you have to grant a few “gimmes” in order to tell the story you want.
The canonical example here is warp drive. Do you want to explore strange new worlds, and seek out new life and new civilizations? Well, you’re gonna have to find a way around Mr. Einstein, who laid down the Universal Speed Limit, a little thing we like to call c.
[And if you could break that limit, you could go back and kill your grandfather, and then all hell breaks loose as the causality of reality gets a serious case of chronal indigestion.]
Nevertheless, in order to boldly go, writers have indeed found a way around Uncle Albert, the most usual one being some form of warp drive.
Others, to their credit, have honored the old man and written stories that respect little c. They’ve built plots around time dilation (Niven and Busby), hibernation chambers (the Alien movies, for example) or wormholes (for example, fresh on my mind, the book/movie Contact, hopefully the subject of an upcoming post).
That’s all fine and — as I say — a gimme.
And so are transporters. They, in point of fact, rock.
But there’s something that bugs me a bit about them. I think they missed a bet. Had they gone the direction I wish, science-loving science fiction fans might all be just a bit happier (and the rest would have been fine with it).
It has to do with how the transporters work, and it involves our favorite science uncle, Albert and his famous equation.
Here’s the deal.
The transporters are said to work by converting your matter into energy (being careful to capture the pattern of the matter). This energy is beamed to some other location, along with the pattern, where it is (kinda magically) converted back into the matter making your body.
Now there are all manner of yeah, buts associated with this.
Getting it to work without a receiver at the destination is bad enough. Another big problem is that it opens the door to the idea of beaming the same pattern and duplicating the person.
As often as you like.
And as we’ll get to below, the Replicators explicitly show this is possible!
Another really serious issue is the sheer amount of energy involved in converting an entire human being (let alone six at a time) into energy. The amount is truly staggering. Beyond real comprehension staggering. Really hard to put into words staggering (which is why I’m waffling here). This is where Uncle Albert’s famous equation comes into play:
This says that every unit of mass (M) multiplied by c-squared gives you the energy (E) of that mass. The thing is, c-squared is a big number, Heck, c is a big number. Then you square it and get: 34,700,983,524.
Every unit of mass amounts to over 34-billion units of energy!
Let me put it this way. The first atom bomb we dropped in anger (fortunately there was only one other), was “Little Boy”, and it possessed a mere 16 kilotons of city-blasting destruction (in fact, it was only the second atom bomb ever set off; a lot more followed in the name of what happens when I press this button).
It laid waste to Hiroshima and killed as many as 150,000 people. Here’s the kicker: the total mass from that bomb converted to energy amounted to roughly 0.73 grams of uranium! A gram is about the weight of a paper clip, so less than a paper clip’s weight of matter makes a sizable boom.
The average human weighs roughly 75,000 grams. Which amounts to over 100,000 Hiroshima bombs. For just one person.
That’s a huge amount of energy, so it’s no wonder they have plasma conduits (the EPS conduits). The idea of handling that much energy in the name of a taxi service is… well, impressive.
The thing is, there was a way to do this that is more plausible, in a science-fictiony kind of way.
Without getting too deep into it, the nature of quantum physics features something interesting: position is not as definite as we’re used to thinking. The particles of your body each have some probability — albeit so tiny as to be indistinguishable from zero — of being anywhere. Even in the next galaxy.
(Specifically, the wave equation that describes them has a value at every point in the universe. But that value is indistinguishable from zero in most places.)
So why not a Transporter that simply convinces all the particles of your body that they’re not over here… they’re over there.
Instead, as the television shows went on, the idea of matter/energy conversion become canonically entrenched and now we’re stuck with it.
Ironically, in The Next Generation, the transporters contain Heisenberg compensators, which both counter-act and acknowledge the quantum effect they could have leveraged.
But using a jump technology, there’s no chance of duplicating, you don’t have to handle vast amounts of energy, and you don’t need a receiver. It’s kind of a hands-down win-win.
It also makes the TNG episode, Realm of Fear, slightly more plausible.
On the other hand, it kills a really great episode, Relics. That, of course, is the one with Scotty. You can’t not love an episode with a Dyson sphere, plus Scotty, plus a look at the old Enterprise bridge, plus “It’s green!” plus Picard knowing exactly what it is (Aldebaran whiskey). It’s easily in my top ten favorites. A jump style of transporter would not have preserved Scotty, so there’s that. (Easy fix: he was in cryogenic storage. Whew!)
And finally we have the replicators, which work like delayed transporters (or stored Scotty).
The pattern for your Earl Gray, hot, is combined with energy, and, hey presto, there ya go.
They’ve had to do a bit of hand-waving over the years to avoid being able to replicate anything. That would be too easy. There are too many interesting plot conflicts that vanish if you can just make anything.
Consider also the scale here. Picard’s cuppa easily weighs several hundred paper clips worth; that’s a lot of atom bombs to spend on tea! I know they have anti-matter engines, but come on, that’s killing flies with phasers (which from an energy point of view are another problem; the phasers, I mean, not the flies, although I imagine flies on a spaceship are no fun).
Using jump transporters you just have a high-tech 24th century auto-kitchen that whips things up in a nano-jiffy. Then your beverage item, hot, is jump-beamed to you via internal transporters.
So a note to all future science fiction television shows: please run your ideas past me in the future. (I may even be particularly available in a month or so!)