SciFi Round 19: Star Trek and Transporters
Last time, I mentioned how TRON fails computer science forever by having people be disintegrated and reconstructed after having spent a very long time (at least subjectively) inside the computer grid. This leads to something else: Star Trek and its transporters. So I write this, at the peril of Rachel deciding I’m writing Fixer Fic and making Star Trek into something that is no longer Star Trek.
Why Transporters Don’t Work
Gene Roddenberry wrote the transporter into the original series to avoid the complexities of rendering the Enterprise landing on planets with 1960s special effects and the show’s budget. It became an iconic element of the Star Trek universe. But as has been noted before, it is impossible to truly teleport anything. Doing so requires violating numerous conservation laws that are consequences of the geometry of spacetime. In order to take a person from a transporter room to the surface of a planet, you need to somewhere find the appropriate set of particles at the destination and assemble them into a unit with a close enough correspondence to the information you have conveyed from the room to the surface. The same applies to real-life quantum teleportation, which works by physically conveying two entangled systems to separate locations and then sending information about the system from one location to the other. This is not what the transporters in Star Trek do. So they are impossible.
But what if we tried a disintegrate-and-reassemble, like the TRON example? Again, that requires impossibly large data storage, impossibly fine measurements, impossibly high bandwidth, and a matter bank at the transporter receive station ready to be assembled into any pattern that comes in. So even teleportation booths are right out.
But What If The Transporter Did Work?
Consider the disintegrate-and-reassemble option. Notice something? This transporter works like a Star Trek replicator: give it a pattern, have it print out two copies rather than one. This happens in more than one of the Trek series: there have been two Kirks, two Rikers, and so on. But if you can scan a living person, hold things in memory indefinitely, and make copies of the pattern, why can’t replicators in Star Trek replicate living matter? (real reason: the writers didn’t want to deal with the complications from that)
And in Star Trek, you can edit a pattern in the transporter memory: take out weapons, scan for bombs, cure diseases, regenerate someone’s body, merge people together. Given all of this, the societies in Star Trek make no sense.
An example: why does anyone in Star Trek die or become seriously ill? Record a person’s pattern, with suitable DRM so that no-one runs off a bunch of copies. The patient presents with what will rapidly become fatal injuries or illness. Take them into the transporter and merge their current brain with the healthy and younger pattern in the buffer. This is a nearly impossible interfacing problem, but no more impossible than the transporter itself. And if someone’s brain is gone, restore them from the most recent backup. There are a large number of ethical considerations here, but people in Star Trek should be functionally immortal as long as the transporter is working. Combine that with the other possibilities of mixing and matching what we would normally consider as distinct individuals, and imagine what such a society would be like. It wouldn’t be anything like what we see in the show.
Other things are wrong too. To avoid having things teleported on board when undesired, Star Trek ships have “shields” – some impossible device that sets up an impossibly high gravitational or electromagnetic field gradient in empty space, in defiance of Gauss’ law. This somehow prevents teleportation, but since transporters are already impossible, let it play. They can’t launch weapons through shields either, so they rapidly modulate them to let their weapons out while protecting the ship. But why launch torpedoes directly? Transport the bombs out and avoid needing a launch system. If you can’t transport through an enemy’s shield while it is up, keep trying to transport the weapon at the enemy until you get lucky and they drop their own shields for an instant.
And when shields are down, why transport a few unarmored infantry onto an enemy ship you want to capture and not destroy, instead of thirty thousand microdrones? Or, for the Borg, a few quadrillion nanobots (there are other reasons why nanotechnology doesn’t work the way it does for the Borg, but that would need to be a later post). The point is that even if the economics and society weren’t going to be so different, Star Trek tactics make no sense. By extension, neither does Star Trek military strategy. There are works that have explored what would actually happen given teleportation and a need for fighting.
Star Trek makes no sense as long as it has transporters/replicators in it. And now Rachel can glare at me.