Beam me up, Scotty!

Updated: Apr 10

Star Trek predicted numerous technological advancements during its run. From touch screen monitors to voice activation and 3D printing, the show was clearly beyond its time. But what is next for technology? Will Transporters and teleportation one day become a possibility? We transmit data in the form of bits and bytes over networks wirelessly every day by manipulating radio waves, hence why can’t we teleport particles through transporters like they do in Star Trek?

The transporter was first introduced in the Star Trek universe in its pilot episode of the original star trek - Memory Alpha - which aired during the 1960s. It was described as a ‘teleportation device capable of almost instantaneously transporting an object from one location to another. It worked on the principles of matter-energy conversion to transform matter into energy, then beaming it to or from a chamber where it is reconverted back into its original pattern.' It may sound quite far fetched; however, this fictional concept draws its base from many physics concepts and theories.

A relatively new theory of ‘quantum teleportation’ allows us to analyze the feasibility of transporters in future society. There are three types of teleportation. One where teleportation occurs due to wormholes, one where teleportation is a type of cloning (but this is not feasible since it will lead to paradoxes and the clone will never be the same as the original), and one where matter is disassembled, transported, and then reassembled again - which sounds the most like our transporter.

The theory of beaming the particles to and fro from one location to another draws on a concept in Quantum Physics - Quantum Entanglement. Quantum Entanglement is basically a phenomenon that describes the interactions of quantum particles. It explains that once they have interacted they will be entangled and contain information about one another and also be interdependent, which means that the state of one of the particles will depend on the state of the other.

This is extremely important if we are breaking down matter and transporting it millions and millions of miles away and also because all quanta particles are superimposed - they exist in two states until they are measured where they will collapse and then become one state. Through this entanglement, the particles will contain information about each other and will be dependent on each other. Hence, this can allow the particles to ‘tell’ each other about where and how to reposition themselves. Obviously, we can’t have our liver where our heart is supposed to be.

Moreover recently quantum teleportation of individual particles has become a reality. According to a Forbes article- ‘For the first time, quantum teleportation has now occurred from the Earth to a satellite in space.' Scientists have also successfully teleported electrons, protons, neutrons, and even calcium atoms in the past.

A problem was that, since they are superimposed, we cannot know which state the multiple particles are in unless we measure it and that will cause it to collapse; however, this problem was combated with the help of Bell measurements which is a ‘sneaky way’ of determining the states since they are entangled with each other without causing it to collapse. Bell state measurements are like predefined ‘rules’ which can help us predict said states. This Bell measurement is actually what allows the teleportation to occur. This may sound extremely confusing, so hopefully, these two videos will make some sense.

Like they say ‘mo money mo problems' hence, beaming multiple particles at the same time creates more problems, and the same quantum theories that allowed us to postulate the possibility of teleportation make it more complicated. According to Chad Orzel notes:

“There are something like a hundred billion neurons in a human brain, and about a hundred trillion connections between them. That's about 2^100,000,000,000,000 possible states to worry about, or roughly 10^30,000,000,000,000. That's considerably more states than there are particles in the known universe, and if you need one entangled pair to teleport each of those (as a ballpark estimate), well, let's just say the odds aren't very good.”

According to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, it is impossible to determine simultaneously, the exact position and exact momentum (or velocity) of a subatomic particle. The more we know about one the less we know about the other, or we know a bit about both. The effect of this principle is significant only for the motion of microscopic objects and is negligible for that of macroscopic objects. While the Schrödinger wave equation can tell us the probabilistic position and energy of the quanta relative to space and time, but only gives a probability distribution. This creates a huge problem in teleportation. If we don’t know the momentum and position of the particles how will we know where they are and if all of them will reconvert back into matter, moreover we can’t account for all the billion particles.

Similarly, all of this speculation is based on the fact that the matter will convert into quantum particles, but will that actually transpire? The answer is ‘yes’ (hopefully). The description of the transporter informs us that the matter is broken down and converted into energy. According to Plank’s Law electromagnetic energy takes the form of tiny discrete packets called quanta or photons. The particles are quantized meaning they are superimposed, or that they have both wave and particle nature and will adhere to the laws of quantum physics (again hopefully). This is why we can’t transmit the particles the way we transmit data - by manipulating waves. The latter is based on classical physics while the former is based on quantum mechanics.

But can we convert matter into energy? The most common way of doing so is through fission, fusion, and annihilation processes, however, this is all dangerous since it involves radioactive decay which will cause a loss of the particles and evolve an enormous amount of energy. Hence converting matter into energy safely is not possible with the current level of technology and understanding. Even if a safer method was possible, there are other philosophical questions that will have to be answered. What will happen to the consciousness during the teleportation? What if a transporter somehow creates clones of you similar to what happened to Kirk in Star Trek Memory Alpha?

Finally, is the reconversion of energy back into matter even possible? According to Einstein and a few other scientists you can! Scientists at the Imperial College have suggested a ‘way to turn a pair of photons, particles of light, into an electron and its antiparticle, a position’. They propose that a ‘new kind of collider be built, one that smashes photons instead of protons’.

“The first step would be to accelerate electrons with a high-energy laser to just below the speed of light (300,000km/s) and smash them into a slab of gold, which would create a beam of light a billion times more intense than the light from the Sun. This would be aimed into a hollow gold shell called a hohlraum (German for empty room). The shell would be excited by another laser to create a thermal radiation field that emits light akin to starlight. When the two sources of light cross, some will collide and create electrons and their corresponding antimatter particles, positrons, which could be detected as they left the hohlraum. They calculate that the experiment should produce 100,000 pairs of particles.”

However, they also noted that: "Although the theory is conceptually simple, it has been very difficult to verify experimentally. We were able to develop the idea for the collider very quickly, but the experimental design we propose can be carried out with relative ease and with existing technology. Within a few hours of looking for applications of hohlraums outside their traditional role in fusion energy research, we were astonished to find they provided the perfect conditions for creating a photon collider. The race to carry out and complete the experiment is on.”

Currently, there is no technology available to perform teleportation or create a device similar to the transporter. Moreover, this is all speculation since quantum physics is all probabilistic data and we certainly don’t know enough about the universe to perform teleportation. But who knows? Tablets were a thing of fiction when Star Trek first aired and I am using one right now to write this post.

Further Reading

Another method of teleportation, which is based on the above principles, which I found quite interesting is using the entanglement as a ‘connection line’ to transmit the particles; similarly to how they used copper wires to create connection lines for those old wired telephones. The explanation is as follows; “If we take two particles, entangle them, and send one to the moon, then we can use that property of entanglement to teleport something between them. If we have an object we want to teleport, all we have to do is include that object in the entanglement.”

Analogies to Understand Quantum Physics

Take an example of ordering two milkshakes - vanilla and chocolate, but you order them in identical white cups with a lid on them so you don’t know which cup has which. Hence a cup of milkshake can be both vanilla and chocolate at the same time until you open it- this is superposition. When you open one of the lids the states will collapse and become either chocolate or vanilla. Let's say you open cup one and it is chocolate, hence you know that the other cup will have vanilla - this is entanglement. The results of opening one of the cups will allow you to know the state of the other, and the state of the other cup depends on the result that of the first cup, independent of the distance between the two cups even when your friend steals the other cup.

A helpful way to understand Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is to think about a sandwich that has both mayo and mustard (a horrible combination nonetheless a suitable analogy) The more mayo you put, the more mayo flavor you get; however, it will overpower the taste of the mustard and hence we would not get the taste of the mustard. Similarly, the more mustard we put, the more we would taste the mustard, and the less we would taste the mayo. If we put equal amounts of mustard and mayo, we would get a mixed taste somewhere in the middle however, we wouldn’t taste much of either of them, and our taste buds would not get enough information to decide on the taste.

A Helpful Video

References (Some of the sites and videos I referred to; however I am not able to locate all of them),annihilation%2C%20fission%2C%20and%20fusion.&text=Annihilation%20occurs%20when%20an%20electron,an%20energy%20of%20511%20keV.

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