Star Trek has a remarkable record of predicting or inspiring future technologies. From mobile phones and tablets to Tricorders and even the Replicator, nearly all of the devices imagined by Star Trek have emerged in some real form, no matter how fantastic they may have once seemed. However, the Transporter, the most famous of all Star Trek technologies, has been an exception to the rule. The limitations of science, and perhaps even the laws of the Universe, meant that beaming ourselves from one place to another would remain nothing more than a science fiction dream.
That is, until now.
Just last week, news of an important breakthrough has suddenly raised hope that a real-life Transporter might be possible after all. In an experiment conducted at Delft University in the Netherlands, scientists were able to successfully transport a few particles of matter across a distance of three meters. This achievement expands our knowledge of quantum teleportation, which had once been thought impossible, and opens the door to one day transporting larger objects, even people, just like in Star Trek.
There has been a lot of well deserved excitement around this amazing experiment, but just how close does the discovery bring us to unlocking the holy grail of Star Trek tech? Is the day when we can travel in a transporter beam like Kirk and Spock nearly upon us? Is it even possible to transport human beings through space? Before we can answer these questions, we must first understand some of the science behind the Transporter and why this latest achievement is such an important step forward.
In general terms, to “beam” something to another point in space, we must be able to measure precise information about the building blocks of that object and convert those calculations into information that can be transferred over distance. In a sense, you can imagine this to be somewhat like scanning a photograph, which converts the physical characteristics of the image into bits and bytes that can be sent to another place over the Internet.
In the case of transporting matter, far more complex details about the atoms inside must be exactly measured at the same point in time. In Star Trek, this occurs when the order to “energize” is given, causing the transporter to collect precise calculations about every particle in the person on the Transporter platform. Unlike a photograph, this data will be used to produce the very same configuration of atoms at the destination point. Indeed, as any Star Trek fan can tell you, just one small mistake in this process could lead to some nasty results. Even the Federation’s 24th Century transporters have produced accidents, including clones, strange mashups and even death.
One real-world challenge in achieving any sort of transport, especially a proper one, is in capturing these precise, sub-atomic calculations. Such measurements were once considered impossible according to a theoretical physicist named Werner Heisenberg who told us nearly a century ago that the laws of physics would not allow us to quantify every variable about a particle at the same time. In other words, Heisenberg concluded that even if we could calculate the position of a particle, or its movement, it would be impossible to capture a complete snapshot of these things at a single moment in time.
This theory became known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, a rule that seemed to make a real-world Transporter scientifically impossible. In fact, to address this limitation, the transporters in Star Trek are even said to contain a component called a Heisenberg Compensator! It is unknown, however, how Federation scientists managed to get around the issue.
Some of our own scientists, including Albert Einstein, also believed Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to be untrue and worked to disprove this limitation. However, Einstein and others still believed that transporting matter would be impossible due to a number of other theories, even if Heisenberg were wrong about his own. In essence, Einstein’s believed that the transfer of quantum bits between particles that is necessary for teleportation was simply not possible.
According to the father of modern physics, a Transporter could never exist. He even famously called the idea, “spooky action at a distance”.
Fortunately for those still dreaming of “beaming,” the team at Delft are among a few contemporary scientists who have begun to prove Einstein and other naysayers wrong. As researchers now race to expand on this recent achievement, they will attempt to send particles across greater distances and may one day prove that transporting more complex arrangements of atoms, including people, is possible after all.
“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 on place to another,” says Professor Ronald Hanson, who led the experiment at Delft. Such a day remains far in the future for sure, but Hanson’s statement does suggest one further snag that could complicate travel by Transporter — are we just a collection of atoms?
It is not known whether transporting a person would work as seen on Star Trek. As the professor suggests, it may one day be possible to send someone’s atoms to another place just as he has done with a few simple particles. What is unclear is whether this process would truly transport the whole person — body and mind — or some sort of quantum copy. Modern science has a limited understanding of human consciousness, so there is yet no way of knowing whether the first person to be “beamed up” would actually emerge as the same, sentient individual that stepped into the Transporter!
There is much work to be done and decades of further study before these questions will be answered, and no doubt many new questions will follow behind them. However, the discovery made by Hanson and his team has demonstrated that sending matter as information can be done, and our knowledge and abilities in this field will soon expand as a result. What breakthroughs will follow is impossible to know, though the potential implications are enormous.
Star Trek’s vision of the future is based in no small part on the idea that humans would some day learn to manipulate our physical environment and in the process find the means to tackle its biggest challenges, including wars and other human suffering that result from limited resources and access to them. With the ability to transfer quantum information, we can begin to imagine the dramatic impact even the smallest steps forward could have on human civilization. Not least of which could be travel by Transporter… one day.
Anthony Rotolo is a professor at Syracuse University and the co-author of The Book on 3D Printing. Rotolo’s course, known as “Trek Class,” explores the Star Trek franchise and its significance to modern issues of science, technology and culture.