Theo Todman's Web Page

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Blog - Gordon

Dear Theo,

I found your website idly one evening. Do you want to engage? I am now a keen amateur Indo-Europeanist, Persian-speaking (and writing), working at the Coventry Refugee Centre, pumping out electro/breakbeat tunes under a name which for reasons of good taste I won't mention here! If you want to, send me some co-ordinates!

Warm regards to Julie. From the family photo on your website your quiver looks well and truly full!

Gordon (13th March 2005)

Theo’s Response1

Note last updated: 19/08/2007 11:34:05

Footnote 1: (Gordon. T1)


It's really good to hear from you, and, yes, I would like to engage. Sorry for the delayed response. I was in India for 3 weeks (work business) and, while I've been back for 2 weeks, I've been catching up with things. Indeed, Julie almost deleted your email along with all the viagra adverts.

I dare say we've got a lot of catching up to do. I nearly deleted my silly website as it's out of date, and doesn't reflect my current views and preoccupations. However, sloth has intervened.
I've finished my Philosophy BA at Birkbeck and am currently enjoying a year off formal study - basically catching up a bit after all the short-cuts necessitated by the 4-year part-time course. I've applied to start a PhD in October … I've checked with my potential supervisor, and she's happy to add me to her brood, so I'm waiting for the incompetent administrative processes to grind on.
My thesis topic will be "Personal Identity" (or some elaboration thereof) - which brings in all sorts of issues in Logic, Metaphysics and the Philosophies of Mind and Psychology.

I've applied to work part time at HSBC (where I've been slaving for the last 18 years), since part-time study is too exhausting on top of a full-time day job, and is frustrating because of all the cut corners. Not that I'd get much sympathy from working mums. Failing that, I may just jack it all in since (my spreadsheet tells me) I can just about survive on a much reduced pension and Julie's pittance from her half-time job at Southend Hospital. And then there's the stream of royalties from the ground-breaking books I'll write. Or not.

You must elaborate on your current interests, and what you do at the CRC. Are you still a subversive? What is your current worldview? I'm now a thoroughgoing (philosophical) materialist, though maybe I always was.

Well, I must now be off to the gym. I have to lose a stone or two and 3 inches off my waistline. How times change - I've spent most of my life trying to move in the opposite direction. I'll bore you with details of family and old Bereans on another occasion (tell me if this is an unwanted co-ordinate).
A question for you - if Scotty beams you up to Mars, is the person who ends up there you? Answers in the form of a dissertation would be appreciated! I have my views, but I'll save them until I've heard yours.

Best wishes,

Theo (30th April 2005)

Gordon’s Response1

Note last updated: 19/08/2007 11:34:05

Footnote 1.1: (Gordon. T1G1) (CORRESPONDENT)

Dear Theo,

Thanks for getting in touch. I won't deal with everything right now, but I did smile at the Star Trek question. Here are some thoughts.

During the transportation process, what is it we are actually transferring? Is there a matter stream, is the body turned into a plasma and physically moved, together with instructions for reconstitution, from one place to another? In this case there’s no argument – if there’s anything in this universe which can be called you, what emerges from the receiving pad is it (whether this result would be "you" in the way you are thinking about it, I would be intrigued to find out). Or is what is being transferred the information, the instructions for making a new you at the destination (presumably together with the necessary energy)?

I think most of us would say that we are talking about the second of these, not least because we know it is possible to transport through ship hulls and solid rock, and it is difficult to imagine a conservative way of getting a plasma through solid matter. The first is necessarily destructive, in that the body is (literally) taken apart, but is the second? To print a book, or a page, is necessarily constructive, but our reading the book doesn’t destroy it. Same goes for writing and reading CDs. Information is not consumed by using it. It is like money rather than like food or firewood (Discuss! I’m saying these things because they feel intuitively true, not because I can formally demonstrate them. I can imagine that they might seem very naïve and sweeping to your better trained and disciplined mind!)

I therefore imagine that the following would be possible:

  • non-destructive reading of the subject, leading to the original remaining on the transmitting pad and an identical copy appearing on the receiving pad.
  • multiple copies being made from the single template at the receiving pad.
In fact, it’s less of a transport device than a copying device. As each copy materialises, it (subjectively and undemonstrably) has continuity of consciousness with the original and (objectively and measurably, if a way could be found to measure what are, after all, merely physical states) shares the same memories up to the point of transport. After transport, random (-looking) quantum processes and different life experiences will cause the different individuals’ personas to diverge. Interestingly, I think this idea was actually explored by the writers of Star Trek TNG. Some transporter accident caused another Will Riker to be created, who, allegedly unlike the real one, was a snivelling failure. Actually, I’ve never liked this character, and I couldn’t agree more with the Star Trek command: "Fire at Will"!

But basically, I think the assumption of a single, unitary "you" is questionable in the Star Trek universe (I make no comment about the position in the real universe). In a world in which transportation is possible as I’ve just discussed it, as between original and copy, two individuals having a common existence, common memories up to the point of transportation - who's to say that one has any primacy or greater legitimacy over the other? Legally we would probably go for the individual who retained the original physical matter of the subject. Besides which, being at the transmitting pad on Earth, he is in a much better position to pick up the reins of the subject's life and to alert Earth's authorities to the existence of a usurper! But in terms of continuity of consciousness, of memories held, of aptitudes and approaches to the future, at this one point in time, the point of transportation (or rather, at one point within the process, see below), these will all be identical.

Perhaps the very last stage of the transport process at the transmitting pad is a mighty burst of radiation to vapourise the original. The subjective experience of the copy would be of continued memories from the transporting pad onto the receiving pad and beyond, whereas perhaps the original’s would be being on the transmitting pad one moment and a blinding agony the next. And of course no-one would ever have a way of knowing that such was the original’s experience. As reported by the copies the process is easy and pain-free. But that moment, between being scanned and oblivion, beyond some metaphorical event horizon, would be unknowable to the rest of transporter society.

Well, not so much an answer as a collection of thoughts loosely based on the theme of your question. Do let me know the way your mind’s running.

I’m on the point of releasing my album, "This is Coventry", a collection of electronic moods, released under a name which I won’t mention here in case your parental controls block it! Speaking more or less objectively, it’s a masterpiece! However, because I made it with blithe disregard for matters of copyright, I’m not going to make any attempt to sell it. Let me force a copy on you! And let me have some coördinates to send it to.

Respect, and warm regards to Julie,

Gordon (3rd May 2005)

Theo’s Response1

Note last updated: 19/08/2007 11:34:05

Footnote 1.1.1: (Gordon. T1G1T1)


I was impressed by your sketch of the issues involved in the beam-me-up-Scottie case! The legal training hasn't done you any harm, I see. I've added some superficial comments below. A lot of work is required to make the arguments sound, I admit.

You are right to make the distinction between transferring matter and information. I gather that in the show itself, it's a plasma that's concerned, but, as you point out, this is unlikely to get to its destination without causing havoc, so the information-only transfer is more reasonable. I've mislaid my copy of "Krauss (Lawrence M.) - The Physics of Star Trek", but I found a useful article1 by him at (Link ( It raises a lot of physical obstacles in the way of the practicalities of teletransportation, but doesn't overlap much with the philosophical issues I'm interested in, beyond pointing out the obvious difficulties for a dualist.

However, even in the plasma-transfer case, I'm unconvinced that I'd survive. For two reasons:

  • Some things (eg. bicycles) can survive disassembly and re-assembly, but only if they are disassembled into recognisable parts. If a bicycle was disassembled into iron filings and latex goo, and then re-manufactured, we might be reluctant to say it's the same bicycle.
  • As (or so I believe - correct me if you know I'm wrong; Krauss doesn't raise this point) a matter of empirical fact, fundamental particles are not distinguishable, so the labelling cannot be undertaken even in principle. If it doesn't matter which particle fits where, provided they are of the right sort, the case seems to collapse into the information-transfer variant. There might be possible worlds in which fundamental particles are distinguishable, but consciousness and all that are empirical phenomena in our world, so what might be possible in other worlds isn't relevant to what could happen in this.
We now turn to the information-transfer case. My main worries initially here were to do with the possibility of duplicates (a possibility you point out). We all know (especially you legal types) that a counterfeit, however well done, isn't the same as the original. The logic of identity is rather boring, but constraining. A thing is identical to itself and to nothing else, so if a thing is identical to two "other" things, these "two" must be identical to one another. Given that my two beamed-up versions aren't identical to one another, at least one of them can't be identical to me. And, since they are exactly similar, why choose one rather than the other? So, neither is me. Both are exactly similar to me, but identity is to be distinguished from exact similarity. This is similar to the case you mention where the "original" isn't destroyed. This sort of thought experiment is referred to as the branch-line case. Canonically, it's where I've only a few days left (because the scanner has done me a mischief). Would I be happy in the knowledge that my duplicate would go on and on, and take up with my wife and career where I left off? Is this as good as if I survived? Not exactly. Note, however, that the case is tendentiously described to lead to this seemingly obvious conclusion. The "main line" candidate would be perfectly happy that his rival back home was about to perish.

Philosophers split into two main camps in response to this:
  • 4-dimensionalists. A thing is really a 4-dimensional worm through space-time, that consists of a set or series of instantaneous 3-D stages. In this situation, where multiple teletransportations occur, all copies are me. They are different 4-D worms, but they share all their pre-beaming-up stages. There were always at least 2 people present. This also answers the Ship of Theseus paradox (see, eg, Link ( That's assuming I go along with the reassembly business, which, in the case of persons for this extreme disassembly situation, I don't.
  • 3-dimensionalists, who claim that while I'm not identical with the beamed-up person, yet I survive. Identity, according to them, is not what matters in survival. Note that there's a modal argument to the effect that even in the usual case where only one copy is beamed up, and the original is destroyed, because there might have been multiple copies, this means that identity isn't preserved even in the case where there's only one. Imagine the situation - I'm beamed up and think I've survived, and then am told that the machine has malfunctioned and produced a duplicate, and hence, contrary to my experience, I haven't survived after all! Unfortunately, some philosophers go along with a "closest continuer" theory of identity across nasty cases of fission or fusion. I'm identical to the continuer that most closely continues me, either psychologically or physically, according to taste. How can my survival depend on what happens to someone else?

    There are two questions outstanding. Do I survive the transfer and, if I do, does it matter that I'm not identical to the pre-beamed person?
Firstly, is identity what matters in survival. Well, it matters to some degree. If there are 1,000 of me squabbling over the same friends, relations, job etc, that might be rather a nuisance. However, this isn't fundamental to whether I do or don't survive. If I'm a ballet dancer or body-builder, I might not find it much fun surviving as a brain in a vat, but that would just be tough. The standard philosophical test is the "future great pain test". I believe that the future continuant will be me, whether I like it or not, if I'm as terrified of that continuent being tortured tomorrow as I would be if I were to be tortured tomorrow in the normal course of events. Our BIVs would be even more upset at the prospect of torture-simulation being fed into their brains than at the loss of their beautiful bodies.

I can imagine fissioning, by the bungled-beaming-up process, into 1,000 continuents, none of which (on a 3-D view) is identical to me, but all of whom continue my first person perspective. I can imagine (just about) going into the machine, and coming out again 1,000 times (when the life-histories of the 1,000 then start to diverge, as you point out). While the psychologies of the 1,000 are initially identical, they are not connected to one another, though they are each connected continuously to the pre-beamed-up person. So, if even one of them were to be threatened with torture, I'd be terrified if I thought that that one (even amongst all the others) would be me.
But, do I survive? I don't think I do, for reasons given above (too radical a reassembly). It's clear (as you say) that a duplicate, looking backwards, wouldn't be able to tell apart the situation from the normal one of (say) just having woken up after a dreamless sleep. However, I imagine it's possible (in the benign case where I'm not fried) for there to be nothing it's like for me after the beaming - it's as though I never woke up, though someone else woke up thinking he was me. This would be a tragedy but, as you say, we'd never know about it, because (on this hypothesis) I wouldn't be around to tell the tale, and my duplicate would claim everything was fine (he remembered going to bed and waking up, as it were).

This worries me slightly about our every-night bouts of unconsciousness. How do I know that the me that wakes up is the same me that went to sleep, and would it matter if it wasn't? Is this worry parallel to beam-me-up case? I suspect the answer is that for a physical thing to persist, there needs to be appropriate physical continuity, and this continuity guarantees its persistence. On the assumption that my brain supports my conscious experience, this is enough to reassure me that, as it's the same continuing brain in my skull overnight, it's the same me that's conscious in the morning. I don't have the same reassurance in the case of beaming-up. So, I wouldn't go in for it, even if it came to be seen as a cheap form of transportation.

All the best,

Theo (May 2005)

Gordon’s Next Email2

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05


“Wired” Issue 3.11 - Nov 1995

Beam Me Up an Einstein, Scotty

Ever wonder about the physics of Star Trek's transporter? Atoms or bits, indeed.

By Lawrence M. Krauss

"Reg, transporting really is the safest way to travel."

Geordi LaForge to Lieutenant Reginald Barclay, in "Realm of Fear"

Lately, I keep hearing the same question: "Atoms or bits - where does the future lie?" Thirty years ago, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, dealt with this same speculation, driven by another imperative. He had a beautiful design for a starship, with one small problem: like a penguin in the water, the Enterprise could glide smoothly through the depths of space, but like a penguin on the ground, it clearly would have trouble with its footing if it ever tried to land. More important perhaps, the meagre budget for a weekly television show precluded landing a huge starship every week.

How then to solve this problem? Simple: make sure the ship would never need to land. Find some other way to get the crew members from the ship to a planet's surface. No sooner could you say "Beam me up" than the transporter was born.

Perhaps no other piece of technology, save for the warp drive, so colors every mission of every starship of the Federation. And even those who have never watched a Star Trek episode recognize the magic phrase. It has permeated our popular culture. I recently heard about a young man who, while inebriated, drove through a red light and ran into a police cruiser that happened to be lawfully proceeding through the intersection. At his hearing, he was asked if he had anything to say. In well-founded desperation, he replied, "Yes, your honor," stood up, took out his wallet, fiipped it open, and muttered into it, "Beam me up, Scotty!"

The story is probably apocryphal, but it is testimony to the impact that this hypothetical technology has had on our culture - an impact all the more remarkable given that probably no single piece of science fiction technology aboard the Enterprise is so utterly implausible. More problems of practicality and principle would have to be overcome to create such a device than you might imagine. The challenges involve the whole spectrum of physics and mathematics, including information theory, quantum mechanics, Einstein's relation between mass and energy, elementary particle physics, and more.

Which brings me to the atoms versus bits debate.

The key question the transporter forces us to address is the following: Faced with the task of moving from the ship to a planet's surface roughly 1028 (1 followed by 28 zeroes) atoms of matter combined in a complex pattern to make up an individual human being, what is the fastest and most efficient way to do it?

A potentially revolutionary concept, at least so claimed by various digital-media gurus, is that the atoms themselves are often secondary. What matters more are the bits.

So, what about people? If you are going to move people around, do you have to move their atoms or just their information? At first you might think that moving the information is a lot easier; for one thing, information can travel at the speed of light. However, in the case of people, you have two problems you don't have with, say, books: first, you have to extract the information, which is not so easy, and then you have to recombine it with matter. After all, people, unlike books, require the atoms.

The Star Trek writers seem never to have got it exactly clear what they want the transporter to do. Does the transporter send the atoms and the bits, or just the bits? You might wonder why I make this point, since Next Generation Technical Manual, by Rick Sternbach, Michael Okuda, and Gene Roddenberry, describes the process in detail: First the transporter locks on target. Then it scans the image to be transported, "dematerializes" it, holds it in a "pattern buffer" for a while, and then transmits the "matter stream," in an "annular confinement beam," to its destination. The transporter thus apparently sends out the matter along with the information.

The only problem with this picture is that it is inconsistent with what the transporter sometimes does. On at least two well-known occasions, the transporter has started with one person and beamed up two. In the famous classic episode "The Enemy Within," a transporter malfunction splits Kirk into two different versions of himself, one good and one evil. In a more interesting, and permanent, twist, in the Next Generation episode "Second Chances," we find out that Lieutenant Riker was earlier split into two copies during transportation from the planet Nervala IV to the Potemkin. One version returned safely to the Potemkin and one was reflected back to the planet, where he lived alone for eight years.

If the transporter carries both the matter stream and the information signal, this splitting phenomenon is impossible. The number of atoms you end up with has to be the same as the number you began with. There is no possible way to replicate people in this manner. On the other hand, if only the information were beamed up, one could imagine combining it with atoms that might be stored aboard a starship and making as many copies as you wanted of an individual.

A similar problem concerning the matter stream faces us when we consider the fate of objects beamed out into space as "pure energy." For example, in the Next Generation episode "Lonely among Us," Picard chooses at one point to beam out as pure energy, free from the constraints of matter. After this proves a dismal and dangerous experience, he manages to be retrieved, and his corporeal form is restored from the pattern buffer. But if the matter stream had been sent out into space, there would have been nothing to restore at the end.

So, the Star Trek manual notwithstanding, I want to take an agnostic viewpoint here and instead explore the myriad problems and challenges associated with each possibility: transporting the atoms or the bits.

When a body has no body

Perhaps the most fascinating question about beaming - one that is usually not even addressed - is, What comprises a human being? Are we merely the sum of all our atoms? More precisely, if I were to re-create each atom in your body, in precisely the same chemical state of excitation as your atoms are in at this moment, would I produce a functionally identical person who has exactly all your memories, hopes, dreams, spirit? There is every reason to expect that this would be the case, but it is worth noting that it fiies in the face of a great deal of spiritual belief about the existence of a "soul" that is somehow distinct from one's body. What happens when you die, after all? Don't many religions hold that the "soul" can exist after death? What then happens to the soul during the transport process? In this sense, the transporter would be a wonderful experiment in spirituality.

If a person were beamed aboard the Enterprise and remained intact and observably unchanged, it would provide dramatic evidence that a human being is no more than the sum of his or her parts, and the demonstration would directly confront a wealth of spiritual beliefs.

For obvious reasons, this issue is studiously avoided in Star Trek. However, in spite of the purely physical nature of the dematerialization and transport process, the notion that some nebulous "life force" exists beyond the confines of the body is a constant theme in the series. The entire premise of the second and third Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, is that Spock, at least, has a "katra" - a living spirit - which can exist apart from the body. More recently, in the Voyager series episode "Cathexis," the "neural energy" - akin to a life force - of Chakotay is removed and wanders around the ship from person to person in an effort to get back "home."

I don't think you can have it both ways. Either the "soul," the "katra," the "life force," or whatever you want to call it is part of the body and we are no more than our material being, or it isn't. In an effort not to offend religious sensibilities, even a Vulcan's, I will remain neutral in this debate. Nevertheless, I thought it worth pointing out before we forge ahead that even the basic premise of the transporter - that the atoms and the bits are all there is - should not be taken lightly.

The problem with bits

Many of the problems I will soon discuss could be avoided if one were to give up the requirement of transporting the atoms along with the information. After all, anyone with access to the Internet knows how easy it is to transport a data stream containing, say, the detailed plans for a new car, along with photographs. Moving the actual car around, however, is nowhere near as easy. Nevertheless, two rather formidable problems arise even in transporting the bits. The first is a familiar quandary, faced, for example, by the last people to see Jimmy Hoffa alive: how are we to dispose of the body? If just the information is to be transported, then the atoms at the point of origin must be dispensed with and a new set collected at the reception point. This problem is quite severe. If you want to zap 1028 atoms, you have quite a challenge on your hands. Say, for example, that you simply want to turn all this material into pure energy. How much energy would result? Well, Einstein's formula E = mc2 tells us. If one suddenly transformed 50 kilograms (a light adult) of material into energy, one would release the energy equivalent of somewhere in excess of a thousand 1-megaton hydrogen bombs. It is hard to imagine how to do this in an environmentally friendly fashion.

There is, of course, another problem with this procedure. If it is possible, then replicating people would be trivial. Indeed, it would be much easier than transporting them, since the destruction of the original subject would then not be necessary. Replication of inanimate objects in this manner is something one can live with, and indeed the crew members aboard starships do seem to live with this. However, replicating living human beings would certainly be cause for trouble (à la Riker in "Second Chances"). Indeed, if recombinant DNA research today has raised a host of ethical issues, the mind boggles at those that would be raised if complete individuals, including memory and personality, could be replicated at will. People would be like computer programs, or drafts of a book kept on disk. If one of them gets damaged or has a bug, you could simply call up a backup version.

OK, keep the atoms

The preceding arguments suggest that on both practical and ethical grounds it might be better to imagine a transporter that carries a matter stream along with the signal, just as we are told the Star Trek transporters do. The problem then becomes, How do you move the atoms? The challenge turns out to be energetics, although in a somewhat more subtle way.

What would be required to "dematerialize" something in the transporter? To answer this, we have to consider a little more carefully a simpler question: What is matter? All normal matter is made up of atoms, which are in turn made up of very dense central nuclei surrounded by a cloud of electrons. As you may recall from high school chemistry or physics, most of the volume of an atom is empty space. The region occupied by the outer electrons is about 10,000 times larger than the region occupied by the nucleus.

Why, if atoms are mostly empty space, doesn't matter pass through other matter? The answer to this is that what makes a wall solid is not the existence of the particles but of the electric fields between the particles. My hand is stopped from going through my desk when I slam it down primarily because of the electric repulsion felt by the electrons in the atoms in my hand due to the presence of the electrons in the atoms of the desk and not because of the lack of available space for the electrons to move through.

These electric fields not only make matter corporeal, in the sense of stopping objects from passing through one another, but they also hold the matter together. To alter this normal situation, one must therefore overcome the electric forces between atoms. Overcoming these forces will require work, which takes energy. Indeed, this is how all chemical reactions work. The configuration of individual sets of atoms and their bind-ing to one another are altered through the exchange of energy. For example, if one injects some energy into a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, the molecules of the two materials can rearrange, and in the process the "binding energy" holding the original materials can be released. This release, if fast enough, will cause a large explosion.

The binding energy between atoms is, however, minuscule compared with the binding energy of the particles - protons and neutrons - that make up the incredibly dense nuclei of atoms. The forces holding these particles together in a nucleus result in binding energies that are millions of times stronger than the atomic binding energies. Nuclear reactions therefore release significantly more energy than chemical reactions, which is why nuclear weapons are so powerful.

Finally, the binding energy that holds together the elementary particles, called quarks, which make up the protons and neutrons themselves is yet larger than that holding together the protons and neutrons in nuclei. In fact, it is currently believed - based on all calculations we can perform with the theory describing the interactions of quarks - that it would take an infinite amount of energy to completely separate the quarks making up each proton or neutron.

Based on this argument, you might expect that breaking matter completely apart into quarks, its fundamental constituents, would be impossible - and it is, at least at room temperature. However, the same theory that describes the interactions of quarks inside protons and neutrons tells us that if we were to heat up the nuclei to about 1,000 billion degrees (about a million times hotter than the temperature at the core of the Sun), then not only would the quarks inside lose their binding energies but at around this temperature matter will suddenly lose almost all of its mass. Matter will turn into radiation - or, in the language of our transporter, matter will dematerialize.

So, all you have to do to overcome the binding energy of matter at its most fundamental level (indeed, at the level referred to in the Star Trek technical manual) is to heat it up to 1,000 billion degrees. In energy units, this implies providing about 10 percent of the rest mass of protons and neutrons in the form of heat. To heat up a sample the size of a human being to this level would require, therefore, about 10 percent of the energy needed to annihilate the material - or the energy equivalent of a hundred 1-megaton hydrogen bombs.

One might suggest, given this daunting requirement, that the scenario I have just described is overkill. Perhaps we don't have to break down matter to the quark level. Perhaps a dematerialization at the proton and neutron level, or maybe even the atomic level, is sufficient for the purposes of the transporter. Certainly the energy requirements in this case would be vastly less, even if formidable. Unfortunately, hiding this problem under the rug exposes one that is more severe. For once you have the matter stream, made now of individual protons and neutrons and electrons, or perhaps whole atoms, you have to transport it - presumably at a significant fraction of the speed of light.

Now, in order to get particles like protons and neutrons to move near the speed of light, one must give them an energy comparable to their rest-mass energy. This turns out to be about 10 times larger than the amount of energy required to heat up and "dissolve" the protons into quarks. Nevertheless, even though it takes more energy per particle to accelerate the protons to near light speed, this is still easier to accomplish than to deposit and store enough energy inside the protons for long enough to heat them up and dissolve them into quarks. This is why today we can build, albeit at great cost, enormous particle accelerators - like Fermilab's Tevatron, in Batavia, Illinois - which can accelerate individual protons up to more than 99.9 percent of the speed of light, but we have not yet managed to build an accelerator that can bombard protons with enough energy to "melt" them into their constituent quarks. In fact, it is one of the goals of physicists designing the next generation of large accelerators - including one device being built at Brookhaven National Laboratory, on Long Island - to actually achieve this "melting" of matter.

Yet again I am impressed with the apt choice of terminology by the Star Trek writers. The melting of protons into quarks is what we call in physics a phase transition. And lo and behold, if one scours the Next Generation Technical Manual for the name of the transporter instruments that dematerialize matter, one finds that they are called "phase transition coils."

So the future designers of transporters will have a choice. Either they must find an energy source that will temporarily produce a power that exceeds the total power consumed on the entire Earth today by a factor of about 10,000, in which case they could make an atomic "matter stream" capable of moving along with the information at near the speed of light, or they could reduce the total energy requirements by a factor of 10 and discover a way to heat up a human being instantaneously to roughly a million times the temperature at the center of the Sun.

If this is the information superhighway, we'd better get in the fast lane

As I write this on my Power PC-based home computer, I marvel at the speed with which this technology has developed since I bought my first Macintosh a little over a decade ago. In a decade my computer internal-memory capabilities have increased by a factor of 1,000! For doing detailed numerical calculations, I estimate that my present machine is almost a hundred times faster than my first Macintosh. My office workstation is perhaps 10 times faster still, performing close to half a billion instructions per second!

One might wonder where all this is heading, and whether we can extrapolate the past rapid growth to the future. The point of noting the growth of computer capability in the last decade is to consider how it compares with what we would need to handle the information storage and retrieval associated with the transporter. And, of course, it doesn't come anywhere close.

Let's make a simple estimate of how much information is encoded in a human body. Start with our standard estimate of 1028 atoms. For each atom, we first must encode its location, which requires three coordinates (the x, y, and z positions). Next, we would have to record the internal state of each atom, which would include things like which energy levels are occupied by its electrons, whether it is bound to a nearby atom to make up a molecule, whether the molecule is vibrating or rotating, and so forth. Let's be conservative and assume that we can encode all the relevant information in a kilobyte of data. (This is roughly the amount of information on a double-spaced typewritten page.) That means we would need roughly 1028 kilobytes to store a human pattern in the pattern buffer. I remind you that this is a 1 followed by 28 zeros.

Compare this to, say, the total information stored in all the books ever written. The largest libraries contain several million volumes, so let's be very generous and say that there are a billion different books in existence (one written for every five people now alive on the planet). Say each book contains the equivalent of a thousand typewritten pages of information (again on the generous side) - or about a megabyte. Then all the information in all the books ever written would require about 1012, or about a million million, kilobytes of storage. This is about 16 orders of magnitude - or about one ten-millionth of a billionth - smaller than the storage capacity needed to record a single human pattern! When numbers get this large, it is difficult to comprehend the enormity of the task.

Storing this much information is, in an understatement physicists love to use, nontrivial. At present, the largest commercially available single hard disks store about 10 gigabytes, or 10,000 thousand megabytes, of information. If each disk is about 10 cm thick, and if we stacked all the disks currently needed to store a human pattern on top of one another, they would reach a third of the way to the center of the galaxy - about 10,000 light-years, or about five years' travel in the Enterprise at warp 9!

Retrieving this information in real time is no less of a challenge. The fastest digital information-transfer mechanisms at present can move somewhat less than about 100 megabytes per second. At this rate, it would take about 2,000 times the present age of the universe (assuming an approximate age of 10 billion years) to write the data describing a human pattern to tape! Imagine then the dramatic tension: Kirk and McCoy have escaped to the surface of the penal colony at Rura Penthe. You don't have even the age of the universe to beam them back, but rather just seconds to transfer a million billion billion megabytes of information in the time it takes the jailor to aim his weapon before firing.

I think the point is clear. This task dwarfs the ongoing Human Genome Project, whose purpose is to scan and record the complete human genetic code contained in microscopic strands of human DNA. This is a multibillion-dollar endeavor, being carried out over at least a decade and requiring dedicated resources in many laboratories around the world.

So you might imagine that I am mentioning it simply to add to the transporter-implausibility checklist. However, while the challenge is daunting, I think this is one area that could possibly be up to snuff in the 23rd century. My optimism stems merely from extrapolating the present growth rate of computer technology. Using my previous yardstick of improvement in storage and speed by a factor of 100 each decade, and dividing it by 10 to be conservative - and given that we are about 21 powers of 10 short of the mark now - one might expect that 210 years from now, at the dawn of the 23rd century, we will have the computer technology on hand to meet the information-transfer challenge of the transporter.

I say this, of course, without any idea of how. It is clear that in order to be able to store in excess of 1025 kilobytes of information in any human-scale device, each and every atom of the device will have to be exploited as a memory site. The emerging notions of biological computers - in which molecular dynamics mimics digital logical processes and the 1025 or so particles in a macroscopic sample all act simultaneously - seem to me to be the most promising in this regard.

I should also issue one warning. I am not a computer scientist. My cautious optimism may therefore merely be a refiection of my ignorance. However, I take some comfort in the example of the human brain, which is light-years ahead of any existing computational system in complexity and comprehensiveness. If natural selection can develop such a fine information storage and retrieval device, I believe that there is still a long way we can go.

That quantum stuff

For some additional cold water of reality, two words: quantum mechanics. At the microscopic level necessary to scan and re-create matter in the transporter, the laws of physics are governed by the strange and exotic laws of quantum mechanics, whereby particles can behave like waves and waves can behave like particles. I am not going to give a course in quantum mechanics here. However, the bottom line is as follows: On microscopic scales, that which is being observed and that which is doing the observation cannot be separated. To make a measurement is to alter a system, usually forever. This simple law can be parameterized in many different ways, but is probably most famous in the form of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. This fundamental law - which appears to do away with the classical notion of determinism in physics, although in fact at a fundamental level it doesn't - divides the physical world into two sets of observable quantities: the yin and the yang, if you like. It tells us that no matter what technology is invented in the future, it is impossible to measure certain combinations of observables with arbitrarily high accuracy. On microscopic scales, one might measure the position of a particle arbitrarily well. However, Heisenberg tells us that we then cannot know its velocity (and hence precisely where it will be in the next instant) very well at all. Or, we might ascertain the energy state of an atom with arbitrary precision. Yet in this case we cannot determine exactly how long it will remain in this state. The list goes on.

These relations are at the heart of quantum mechanics, and they will never go away. As long as we work on scales where the laws of quantum mechanics apply - which, as far as all evidence indicates, is at least larger than the scale at which quantum gravitational effects become significant, or at about 10-33 cm - we are stuck with them.

There is a slightly fiawed yet very satisfying physical argument that gives some heuristic understanding of the uncertainty principle. Quantum mechanics endows all particles with a wavelike behavior, and waves have one striking property: they are disturbed only when they encounter objects larger than their wavelength (the distance between successive crests). You have only to observe water waves in the ocean to see this behavior explicitly. A pebble protruding from the surface of the water will have no effect on the pattern of the surf pounding the shore. However, a large boulder will leave a region of calm water in its wake.

So, if we want to "illuminate" an atom - that is, bounce light off it so that we can see where it is - we have to shine light of a wavelength small enough so that it will be disturbed by the atom. However, the laws of quantum mechanics tell us that waves of light come in small packets, or quanta, which we call photons (as in starship "photon torpedoes," which in fact are not made of photons). The individual photons of each wavelength have an energy inversely related to their wavelength. The greater the resolution we want, the smaller the wavelength of light we must use. But the smaller the wavelength, the larger the energy of the packets. If we bombard an atom with a high-energy photon in order to observe it, we may ascertain exactly where the atom was when the photon hit it, but the observation process itself - that is, hitting the atom with the photon - will clearly transfer significant energy to the atom, thus changing its speed and direction of motion by some amount.

It is therefore impossible to resolve atoms and their energy configurations with the accuracy necessary to re-create exactly a human pattern. Residual uncertainty in some of the observables is inevitable. What this would mean for the accuracy of the final product after transport is a detailed biological question I can only speculate upon.
This problem was not lost on the Star Trek writers, who were aware of the inevitable constraints of quantum mechanics on the transporter. Possessing something physicists can't usually call upon - namely, artistic license - they introduced "Heisenberg compensators," which allow "quantum resolution" of objects. When an interviewer asked Star Trek technical consultant Michael Okuda how Heisenberg compensators worked, he merely replied, "Very well, thank you!"

Heisenberg compensators perform another useful plot function. One may wonder, as I have, why the transporter is not also a replicator of life forms.

After all, a replicator exists aboard starships that allows glasses of water or wine to magically appear in each crew member's quarters on voice command. Well, it seems that replicator technology can operate only at "molecular-level resolution" and not "quantum resolution." This is supposed to explain why replication of living beings is not possible. It may also explain why the crew continually complains that the replicator food is never quite the same as the real thing, and why Riker, among others, prefers to cook omelets and other delicacies the old-fashioned way.

Seeing is believing

One last challenge to transporting - as if one more were needed. Beaming down is hard enough. But beaming up may be even more difficult. In order to transport a crew member back to the ship, the sensors aboard the Enterprise have to be able to spot the crew member on the planet below. More than that, they need to scan the individual prior to dematerialization and matter-stream transport. So the Enterprise must have a telescope powerful enough to resolve objects on and often under a planet's surface at atomic resolution. In fact, we are told that normal operating range for the transporter is approximately 40,000 kilometers, or about three times the Earth's diameter. This is the number we shall use for the following estimate.

Everyone has seen photographs of the domes of the world's great telescopes, like the Keck telescope in Hawaii (the world's largest), or the Mt. Palomar telescope in California. Have you ever wondered why bigger and bigger telescopes are designed? (It is not just an obsession with bigness - as some people, including many members of Congress, like to accuse science of.)

Just as larger accelerators are needed if we wish to probe the structure of matter on ever smaller scales, larger telescopes are needed if we want to resolve celestial objects that are fainter and farther away. The reasoning is simple: because of the wave nature of light, any time it passes through an opening it tends to diffract, or spread out a little bit. When the light from a distant point source goes through the telescopic lens, the image will be spread out somewhat, so that instead of seeing a point source, you will see a small, blurred disk of light. Now, if two point sources are closer together across the line of sight than the size of their respective disks, it will be impossible to resolve them as separate objects, since their disks will overlap in the observed image. Astronomers call such disks "seeing disks." The bigger the lens, the smaller the seeing disk. Thus, to resolve smaller and smaller objects, telescopes must have bigger and bigger lenses.

There is another criterion for resolving small objects with a telescope. The wavelength of light, or whatever radiation you use as a probe, must be smaller than the size of the object you are trying to scan, according to the argument I gave earlier. Thus, if you want to resolve matter on an atomic scale, which is about several billionths of a centimeter, you must use radiation that has a wavelength of less than about one-billionth of a centimeter. If you select electromagnetic radiation, this will require the use of either X-rays or gamma rays. Here a problem arises right away, because such radiation is harmful to life, and therefore the atmosphere of any Class M planet will filter it out, as our own atmosphere does. The transporter will therefore have to use nonelectromagnetic probes, like neutrinos or gravitons. These have their own problems, but enough is enough....

In any case, one can perform a calculation, given that the Enterprise is using radiation with a wavelength of less than a billionth of a centimeter and scanning an object 40,000 kilometers away with atomic-scale resolution. I find that in order to do this, the ship would need a telescope with a lens greater than approximately 50,000 kilometers in diameter! Were it any smaller, there would be no possible way even in principle to resolve single atoms. I think it is fair to say that while the Enterprise-D is one large mother, it is not that large.

Thinking about transporters has led us into quantum mechanics, particle physics, computer science, Einstein's mass-energy relation, and even the existence of the human soul. We should therefore not be too disheartened by the apparent impossibility of building a device to perform the necessary functions. Or, to put it less negatively, building a transporter would require us to heat up matter to a temperature a million times the temperature at the center of the Sun, expend more energy in a single machine than all of humanity presently uses, build telescopes larger than the size of the Earth, improve present computers by a factor of 1,000 billion billion, and avoid the laws of quantum mechanics. It's no wonder that Lieutenant Barclay was terrified of beaming! I think even Gene Roddenberry, if faced with this challenge in real life, would probably choose instead to budget for a landable starship.

Lawrence M. Krauss is Ambrose Swasey professor of physics, professor of astronomy, and physics department chair at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of Fear of Physics, among other books.

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Note last updated: 19/08/2007 12:36:00

Footnote (Gordon. T1G1T1G1) (CORRESPONDENT)

Dear Theo,

I've been thinking on and off about your query as to what my world view is. To be honest, this is the kind of question I am asked these days by fundamentalist Christians who are too young and too clever for their own good, i.e. exactly like I was when I was their age!

As a starting point, I don't believe that there is any entity reading our thoughts, capable of reading our thoughts, or for whom our thoughts are relevant. In other words, whatever intricacies and agonies are going through our heads, it is in our actions that we deal with the universe. On this basis, people who would say that their world views were quite different from those of others are actually indistinguishable from them. A clutch of differing world views on the same street, Christians, pagans, positivists, Spinozist pantheists, would, in their patterns of behaviour and consumption, be indistinguishable to a Martian - or an African.

The converse of this is that our actions say things about our world view which we may not necessarily have framed in terms ourselves, for example, the implicit belief that we as Western Europeans are worth the share of the world's resources (including human labour) which we expend in our lifestyles. (I sometimes say that we haven't abolished slavery, we've simply moved it out of sight into the third world).

What we call our world views are nothing more then, than a set of mental baubles which make us feel more comfortable and settled in our existences. To that extent they may have relevance and importance, but that doesn't make them true. Their importance is that they work for the individual, and the diversity of individuals is reflected in the huge range of world views. I'm reminded of the Auden poem "Law, say the gardeners, is the sun":

And always the loud angry crowd
Very angry and very loud
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly, Me.

Just to put the final cap on this implicit "What is truth?" position, let me quote from Schmalstieg's "Indo-European Linguistics", (1980, Pennsylvania State University Press, page 19):

"When a person finds a scientific argument convincing he usually finds it so because it agrees with the facts he has learned and the manner in which he imagines the nature of the universe to be constructed. It is, in fact, a kind of unconscious statistical judgement."

For myself, the Disposable Heroes of HipHopricy line "If ever I should stop thinking about music and politics" comes close to describing my mindset, to which I would add an interest in the entire Indo-European phenomenon, trying to understand the underlying linguistic, cultural and racial patterns within Eurasia, and the reasons for them. If ever a subject needed a clear-sighted and discriminating scientific approach, this is it!

Hope this is of interest. I hope also that you enjoyed the Flex Pussy album, second one on its way. I've gotten bored with learning Persian (also reading and writing it) because it's "too easy" and I'm toying with the idea of starting on something "really hard", like Sanskrit or Russian, both highly conservative Indo-European languages.

Regards to all,

Gordon (11th December 2005)

Theo’s Response1

Note last updated: 19/08/2007 11:34:05

Footnote (Gordon. T1G1T1G1T1)


It has just occurred to me that I never responded to your email from before Christmas 2005. I do intend to do so, but I imagine our mind-sets are very different. So, no change. To put labels on it – realism versus anti-realism, modernism versus post-modernism. Or is this an outrageous misunderstanding? I will get round to responding in due course, though maybe you could correct this basic misunderstanding, if it is one, to save me wasted key-depressions.

All the best,

Theo (7th May 2007)

Note last updated: 19/08/2007 11:34:05

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