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  • William L Culbertson

"Beam me up, Scotty"

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

I recently corresponded with a member of our local writers group about a standard science fiction device: the transporter.


I have a bit of trivia (which you probably already know), regarding teleportation. It came from the book "Physics of the Impossible" I referred to in a previous email.

The designers of the Star Trek series wanted to eliminate costly special effects required for space ships blasting off and landing, so they decided on teleportation ("Beam me up, Scotty.”) to transport crew members. They came under criticism from the scientific community because teleportation violated Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. You could only do it by duplicating the position and velocity of every electron and every other particle in the body being transported—something Heisenberg’s principle specifically forbids. It’s impossible.

Star Trek producers solved the problem by installing a (fictional) “Heisenberg Compensator" into the transport system.

If this keeps up, I could become a science fiction fan.


Hi Lynn,

I see several other criticisms as well. Actually transporting the particles of physical matter that make up the body would be incredibly energy intensive. How far would they break down the particles of the body—into molecules? Atoms? They would also have to know the position and velocity—oh, Heisenberg again.

But even if they could do it that way, would the actual atoms be sent? In that case, they couldn’t beam someone into an interior room because a beam of physical particles would be scattered by the walls. If ions are involved, a passing magnetic field would disrupt the beam. It would also take some sort of a device on the receiving end to reassemble the pieces in their proper order. To me, that assembly process looks to be really, really hard.

If the actual matter in a body has to be somehow “changed” into photons to be transmitted, this would produce in the amount of E=mc^2, probably enough devastate the planet as well as the starship.

Both of those methods seem unlikely. Therefore, a transporter must work by deep scanning the body to beam just the information about that body’s structure (right down to the position of the electrical impulses in the brain if we want to keep their memory intact) to the receiving point where that information would be used to recreate a new version of the body being transported. Again, this appears to require the receiver use the information to recreate the body bit-by-bit and impulse-by-impulse. We have already built a crude, stone-tool-chipping version in our modern 3-D printers. Except for the complexity of the process, (and disregarding Heisenberg again) this method should at least theoretically possible.

However, this information-based transporter has an important caveat. What happens to the old body if the physical part of the body is not transported? Does being deep scanned kill the original person? If so, there will a corpse to dispose of at the sending end—or maybe a puddle of gray-goo to mop up.

If being deep scanned does not kill the body, then there are now two identical individuals—albeit in different places. Will society permit this? If it does, that means that someone could duplicate themself many times. Can I manufacture a marching army of me’s? If not, then someone at the sending end will have to kill the original person being sent—after confirmation of a successful transmission of course—and dispose of the body.

So, yes. Science fiction is interesting. And sometimes willing suspension of disbelief is absolutely essential if you are going to keep reading.


PS Thanks for giving me another topic for my blog.

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