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Credit: CBS

The terrible truth about Star Trek's transporters

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Feb 19, 2020

After more than 50 years on the air, Star Trek has become a sort of universal vision of the future. Where other stories imagine a world torn by war, or at the mercy of technology run wild, Star Trek imagines, if not the best possible future, one very close to it.

Creator Gene Roddenberry's vision of humanity in the 23rd and 24th centuries unifies the planet, does away with grand-scale internal conflict, erases the need for a money-based economy, and opens up a whole galaxy of possibilities for the human species. The result is a people working together to create art, advance science, and explore the cosmos. We break the light-speed barrier, visit strange new worlds, enjoy lifelike virtual reality simulations, and crack teleportation. Distances both near and far are within our grasp. It's a veritable utopia, challenged only by external threats. Or at least it was, until Star Trek: Picard premiered.

In the latest addition to the Trek mythology, which returns to familiar characters from TNG, we find a Federation that has lost its way, quickly moving down a path that threatens every advancement humanity has made.

It's cause to stop and wonder at what other missteps have been made. If the Federation is not the bastion of truth and morality we thought it was, could other elements of this imagined future also be horrors in disguise?

No, we're not talking about Klingon cuisine. We're talking about transporters.

ARE TRANSPORTERS DEATH MACHINES?

There is, admittedly, some ambiguity about precisely how Trek's transporters work. The events of some episodes subtly contradict events in others. The closest thing to an official word we have is the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, which states that when a person enters a transporter, they are scanned by molecular imaging scanners that convert a person into a subatomically deconstructed matter stream. That's all a fancy-pants way of saying it takes you apart, atom by atom, and converts your matter into energy. That energy can then be beamed to its destination, where it's reconstructed.

According to Trek lore, we're meant to believe this is a continuous process. Despite being deconstructed and rebuilt on the other end, you never stop being "you." Case in point, the TNG episode "Realm of Fear," which deals primarily with Reginald Broccoli's … er, Barclay's fear of the transporter.

Barclay is terrified of being transported, having thus far deftly avoided it for the duration of his Starfleet career. There are many things he fears about it, including transporter psychosis, a disorder that hasn't been seen in-universe in years. Another thing he's not afraid of is dying. He seems to have a notion that being transported is tantamount to death.

Eventually, Barclay finally does step onto the pad and we see, through his eyes, that he maintains continuous consciousness while in the transportation beam. This directly implies that, whatever happens in the transporter between points A and B, cessation of life isn't one of them.

Case closed, right? Not so fast!

A later episode in the same series throws a wrench in the transporter gears, giving pretty strong evidence that whatever comes out on the exit pad is not the same stuff that went in. "Second Chances," a Season 6 episode of TNG, has the Enterprise crew visiting Nervala IV in an attempt to retrieve information from a Federation research base.

Commander Riker is familiar with the base, having been there eight years prior. Nervala IV is surrounded by an unusual disruption field that allows transportation only during short intervals. Upon arriving at the base, Riker comes face to face with a duplicate of himself. He learns this other Riker is, indeed, himself.

Riker, meet Riker. Credit: CBS

During the previous mission, Riker, a lieutenant, senior grade at the time, was the last to be transported back to the Potemkin, the ship on which he was serving. From the perspective of the Riker we know, the transport was successful; he got off-planet and went on with his life. But the disruption field played havoc with the transporter beam, splitting off into two signals, one that made its way off-planet and one that didn't. When all was said and done, there were two Rikers.

If the transporter breaks a person down, converting them to energy, and then converts that same energy back into matter on the other end, maintaining continuity, the events of "Second Chances" could not have happened. At best, we would have ended up with two signals, each containing half of Riker's energy. The only reasonable explanation is that the transporter cares little about what matter it uses to rebuild you. You are wholly deconstructed on one end and built anew on the other end, out of whatever is available. All that's sent through is a blueprint. Continuity severed.

This entirely changes the way the citizens of the Federation interact with the transporter. The fact that you are scanned, deconstructed, and rebuilt almost immediately thereafter only creates the illusion of continuity. In reality, you are killed and then something exactly like you is born, elsewhere.

There's a whole philosophical debate about whether this really matters. If the person constructed on the other end is identical to you, down to the atomic level, is there any measurable difference from it being actually you? Those are questions we can't begin to answer. What seems clear — whatever the technical manual says — is you die when you enter a transporter, however briefly.

ENTERING THE BEAM

Let's assume you're cool with the notion that you're about to be killed and a doppelgänger will be left in your place. What would it be like to step into a transporter? Well, first you have to be scanned. A powerful computer will survey your body and make a map of everything that makes you, down to the atomic level. Completing even this first step requires off-the-charts computing power.

According to a teleportation physics study carried out by the Air Force Research Laboratory, assuming the ability to store all of the information for a single atom — its location in space, its linear and angular momentum, and its internal quantum state — with one kilobyte, it would require a minimum of 10 to the 28th power kilobytes to store the information for one person. Using current technology, it would take longer than the age of the universe to store that amount of information. They estimate that if improvement in computing technology maintains a factor of 10-100 over the next 200-300 years, we may be able to accomplish such a feat. Just in time for the 24th century.

Next, you'd have to be disassembled. This is, likewise, no easy task.

Credit: Marvel Studios/Disney

The level of energy needed to vaporize a human is staggering. Luckily for us, we have Scientific American's Mad Scientist Handbook for reference. According to those hallowed pages, in order to truly vaporize a person, breaking them apart at the atomic level, it would take approximately three gigajoules of energy. To put that into context, the average three-mile-long lightning bolt carries between one and ten gigajoules. In short, take all of the energy present in a bolt of lightning and deliver it to a person — that's what it would take to disassemble them.

Referring back to the Mad Scientist's Handbook, 70 of the world's most powerful lasers would deliver only enough energy to vaporize the water in a person's body. That's not even disassembling the water, just converting it from a liquid to a gas, and it leaves all the other bits behind for Chief O'Brien to deal with. Suffice it to say, there is no machine currently created, nor in the offing, capable of delivering the amount of energy required to silently and peacefully take a person apart. We should probably be grateful. One of our more horrifying bombs could do it, yet somehow that doesn't seem as future-utopian as what we're looking for.

Once your body has been scanned and you've been blown to smithereens, the transporter needs to deliver that information to your destination. We run into problems there, too.

A team of fourth-year physics students at the University of Leicester crunched the numbers on how long it would take to transmit the necessary information to build a person, and the news isn't good. They even took a shortcut.

Instead of capturing all of the information down to the atomic level, they suggested transmitting just the DNA information of a person, along with a brain state. If you had that information, you could presumably clone a person and then implant them with the mental state of their previous self. It's not exactly teleportation, but it gets the job done.

Only, even that fraction of what makes up a person comes in at 2.6 tredecillion bits. Which is, in scientific vernacular, several boatloads.

The estimated time to transmit, using the standard 30 GHz microwave band used by communications satellites, would take 350,000 times longer than the age of the universe.

Boosting the bandwidth means boosting the power, and eventually you end up asking yourself why we didn't just take a shuttlecraft and avoid the hassle.

Considering you can take a standard rocket to the Moon in just a few days, it's starting to look like it might be smarter to strap yourself to a bomb than to stand inside one and hope our best computers are up to the task of putting you back together. Unless we experience some truly tremendous technological breakthroughs over the next couple of centuries, it isn't likely we'll be transporting anywhere in the foreseeable future. But who knows? It could happen, and then all you'd have to worry about is how to manage the existential crisis.


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