I’ve written about the Yin-Yang of analog versus digital, a fundamental metaphor for how reality can be smooth or bumpy. I’ve applied the idea to numbers, where we see two types of infinity — countable (discrete, digital, bumpy) and uncountable (continuous, analog, smooth). There is also how chaos mathematics says that — the moment we round off those smooth numbers into bumpy ones — our ability to use them to calculate certain things is forever lost.
I’ve also written about Star Trek replicators and transporters, as well as the monkey wrench of the hated holodeck. According to canon, all three use the same technology (which raises some contradictions for the holodeck).
Today, for Science Fiction Saturday, I want to tie it all together in another look at transporters and replicators!
Obviously, this is a purely whimsical case of ‘Star Trekin’ It‘ — and over a show that went off the air two decades ago! But it’s the weekend — a time for whimsy and fun.
Giving credit where credit is due, this springs from a comment my buddy made during a discussion of transporters and replicators. The moment he mentioned digitized patterns, I realized it solved a vexing question about how replicators and transporters work.
Here’s the conundrum: On the one hand we have the transporter, which converts people into energy, sends that energy a long distance, and then reassembles it into people. All so flawlessly that using the transporter is as common as using a taxi.
On the other hand, we have the replicator, which converts energy into things (like Earl Grey, hot). Most importantly, replicators have limitations. There are things you cannot replicate. For example, dilithium crystals and puppies (let alone new people) seem beyond the ability of replicators.
If they use the same technology, why can transporters apparently transport anything, but replicators are limited to tea and crumpets? I’d have to re-watch every episode to be sure, but I think they’ve transported dilithium crystals. I know they can transport puppies and people.
First we considered the idea it was a moral restriction: you just don’t replicate living things. But that doesn’t account for the inability to replicate certain materials.
[Reality: such materials are plot-important, so being able to replicate them would be too easy. That’s exactly why they’re called unobtainium.]
And would puppies really be such a great sin? How about a goldfish? Can you replicate living plants? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen cut flowers replicated (“a dozen roses for m’lady!”), but I’m not sure about living plants.
Then we considered the idea that replicators couldn’t do fine detail, that maybe they couldn’t replicate DNA or even the many parts of the living cell. Those cut flowers, for example, would have very simple cells that just looked like plant cells until you looked really closely to see they were just solid blobs of pseudo-plant.
But the transporter uses the same technology, and it clearly handles living cells — including their DNA — just fine. If it didn’t, people would begin to experience horrific mutations after being transported.
Is it just that replicators are a simpler technology? Keeping in mind that the holodeck uses the same technology, does that mean holo-people aren’t real below the cellular level? (What was Riker kissing that time?)
It turns out there’s a great reason for the difference! We almost had it when we considered replicators not handling fine detail. The answer does mean that biological cells would likely be very simplistic. And it explains exactly why replicators can’t create living things or some materials.
Simply put: transporters are analog, whereas replicators are digital.
The Yin-Yang of smooth and bumpy (plus chaos mathematics) strikes again! Transporters work with the smooth, continuous reality of real things, whereas replicators work with digitized (discrete, rounded-off) stored patterns of real things.
There is some confusion about exactly how transporters operate. The Writer’s Guide suggests that things are broken down to molecular level, stored and sent by sub-space to a re-assembly point. That doesn’t explain how we got two Kirks and two Rikers.
But consider two things we do know about transporters: There is a “pattern buffer” that can store a person — in one special case, for 75 years. There are “Heisenberg Compensators,” which suggests that transporters must work at a quantum level.
The key is the pattern buffer. According to canon, complex patterns begin to degrade after eight minutes (except for special case Scotty). It seems clear the replicator can’t work by “transporting” them halfway, storing them in pattern buffers, and then completing the transport on demand.
Despite the double Rikers and Kirks (a freak accident, let’s say), you’d need a separate pattern buffer for every cup of Earl Grey (hot) Picard orders.
Even if you could solve the degradation and duplication problems, you’d still need a separate pattern buffer for every possible thing you might replicate.
What if Gordi wants to replicate a new mounting flange he needs, or a new tool? How do you replicate something that is only a design and never existed before?
It all came together when my buddy said, “digitized patterns.”
It’s always been clear that replicators had to work from patterns. That’s the only way to replicate a new design. And it makes sense there could be a basic pattern for “beef” that the replicator modifies for tenderloin, sirloin, ribs or burgers.
The kicker was always, well, why not store the pattern for a living thing? Why not store the pattern for puppies and goldfish and Ficus trees?
Because stored patterns are necessarily digitized versions of the real pattern. And remember what chaos mathematics tells us: once you round-off reality, once you digitize the analog, you’ve lost the battle. Those stored patterns simply don’t have the precision of the real-life patterns.
Transporters can — for a short time — store the full analog reality. Think of it as a standing wave of matter. A real-world “chord” that sounds only for so long before fading away.
But replicators are just player pianos plunking out stored notes. You slip in a particular roll and play a simple song.
You can play it fast or slow, high or low.
A clever piano might even have some tricks to vary the tune a bit.
So, Sam,… play me some Earl Grey… And play it hot!