Transporter Beaming – August 22, 2010

This is another staple of science fiction that, in my view, simply is not possible. And, no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes, it will still remain impossible.

Most people associate “transporters” with Star Trek, but similar technology drives the transfer booths and stepping disks used in Larry Niven’s Known Space series and was the cause of the tragic accident in the short story “The Fly” by George Langelaan. In all cases, the technology involves (1) disintegrating an object in one location, (2) analyzing its atomic components and their relation to each other, (3) transmitting this information to a receiver in another location, and (4) reconstructing the object with some kind of energy-to-matter converter using the transmitted information.

We have to imagine that the disintegration in Step 1 will be relatively fast. Being picked apart with tweezers would be slow and painful. But fast disintegration would involve applying a certain amount of heat. The heat might come on fast enough to overcome the body’s pain sensors. Perhaps even fast enough to evaporate the 70 percent of the human body that’s made up of plain old water molecules without causing them to boil and explode the cells. But any sort of orderly scheme for disintegrating the body and analyzing the resulting particles—head-to-toe, side-to-side, outside-inward—has to take place in real time. Even the fastest computer cannot absorb the data instantaneously.

This presents a real problem. The human body contains approximately 10 trillion cells, and perhaps that many more in the helpful and necessary bacteria that are our lifelone partners. Each cell contains on the order of 10 billion atoms. You can get lost in the zeros multiplying that out, but the result is a tremendous number of physical items that have to be identified by type (hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.) and location (x, y, z coordinates relative to the disruptor scan). That’s at least four pieces of data for each of those quintillion-odd objects. We’ll assume that computers in the future can handle this much data really fast. But they will never approach being able to process a near-infinite amount of data in near-zero time duration.

And it gets worse. You might be able to disintegrate and scan a diamond ring or a diesel engine with this process. They are objects with a relatively fixed arrangement to their components—pistons here, connector rods there—and will “hold still” for the operation. But I am not an object. Neither are you.

Repeat after me: “I am not an object.” I may have a physical location, a measurable mass, and apparent physical integrity. But I am not an object.

So what am I? Like all living things, I am a process. Like a waterfall or an ocean wave, the atoms that compose “me” are in constant motion. Aside from the water molecules, most of them are in combination as proteins and the polymers (DNA, RNA) that coordinate them. In every one of those 10 trillion cells, chemical reactions are taking place as enzymes break down and combine simpler molecules, as DNA transcribes to RNA and RNA translates amino acids to proteins. Thousands of simultaneous reactions are taking place in each cell, quadrillions of simultaneous reactions in the body. And most of them are temporally oriented: the enzyme makes a bond, the enzyme breaks a bond. So an x, y, z coordinate will not capture what’s going on. For that, you need a relatively sophisticated reaction equation—all while you’re analyzing the flying detritus from your disruptor. While covalent bonds are being halted and analyzed in one part of the cell, they are proceeding apace in another part.

Imagine trying to disrupt and analyze a diesel engine while it’s running at 6,000 rpm. That’s a ridiculously simple task, compared with analyzing a human being.

The disruptor analysis of a living human will of necessity yield mistakes. Mistakes happen all the time in real life, too. DNA replication yields a coding error that causes a mutation. A stray cosmic ray knocks off a hydrogen atom and changes a protein into a poison. In the normal course of things, most of these errors are self-cancelling, but some result in cancer. Scanning the human body with a disruptor will concentrate many such errors into one second of time. How many errors can a human body tolerate? If your scanning error rate isn’t somewhere ’way south of Six Sigma, you’ll get sick and die.

Maybe, with some far-future piece of technology we’ll be able to flash-fry a living human body, analyze the results instantaneously, and reconstruct the near-infinite number of chemical reactions in zero time with zero error. Maybe.

You go first.