Blueprints for a Star Trekian Transporter


Several years ago I wrote a book with William Shatner (I’m Working on Thatabout how the inventions that Star Trek envisioned in the 20th century were coming true in the 21st. That was a good two hundred years before they were supposed to be a reality in the series itself. We traveled all around the country and talked with scientists about androids, the universal translator, the Holodeck and warp drive, communicators, phasers and artificially intelligent machines. But of all the Star Trek inventions that people tell me they would love most to have in their daily lives (not counting the communicator which already is) it’s the transporter, as in “Beam me up, Scotty!”

With traffic getting worse and more of us nettlesome Homo sapiens walking and driving and flying the planet, getting from point A to point B would be a helluva lot easier if we could just step into a booth, set a destination, press a button and appear, in seconds, at precisely the place we would like to be. Imagine if such a contraption existed. Cortisol levels worldwide would drop like so many lead zeppelins. No traffic jams, no contracting common cold (or worse) at the airport or on a flight where  every molecule onboard is captured and recycled hour after hour for communal breathing. No bumping or jostling on streets, no road rage, inept cabbies, no vehicular accidents of any kind. Zero.

People by the thousands would magically appear at the Superbowl and World Series and World Cup. Naturally, a few industries would feel a slight pinch. Global pollution would vanish along with cars, jets and trains (because if you can transport humans, you can also transport everything else). No more Fed Ex, auto industry, airlines or mass transit systems. Roads might even eventually disappear. We might want to keep sidewalks though. It is possible people will still want to stroll occasionally to the local coffee shop, or even take a short bike ride around the park. It’s not like we’ll lose our primal drive for fresh air, sunshine and the simple joys of saying hello to old friends, or, for that matter, randomly making new ones as we navigate here or there the old fashioned way. But think how wonderful it would be to chuck the really annoying aspects of travel – the waits, the hassles, the breakdowns, the crowds, the obnoxious other humans (who, of course never include us) doing the obnoxious things they do.

There is a slight problem with building a transporter, however. Unlike a time machine (see Recipe for a Time Machine) which may be theoretically possible, creating a transporter any time soon does not look very promising, at least not one like the Star Trek Enterprise model which essentially breaks you down into your constituent molecules and beams them to another destination where they are perfectly reassembled to re-create a perfectly transported you.

It seems the discombobulation of the molecular bonds that make you possible is exceedingly difficult. The nugget of the problem isn’t so much with the molecules themselves as with the force that keeps them together. It turns out that when you bang your hand against a table, or whack your head on the car roof when you’re getting in or out, the pain you feel isn’t because the object you just struck is actually solid. In fact there is enough space between the molecules that make up the objects all around you that you should be able to pass directly through them as easily as a ghost. The reason you can’t is because of the electrical fields that bond the atomic nucleus and electrons together. THAT is what makes things, including me an you, “solid,” and what keeps the entire universe from splattering in all directions.

When it comes time to flip the switch on a transporter to break your molecules down into “a matter stream” that can then blithely be sent elsewhere to be reassembled as you, it requires a LOT of energy. On a good day, most of us amount to roughly 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. To break those apart so they can be transported would require heating you up to 1,000 billion degrees, about a million times hotter than the core of the sun.

This is not a very green form of travel. And it would tend to destroy most of the property in the neighborhood.

So, as much as I would love to see a world devoid of traffic, packed transit lines and security checkpoints, and as much as we would all love to instantly arrive at our destinations without even a touch of jet lag, I’m afraid this is one Star Trekian invention that isn’t likely to be part of the foreseeable future. But it is feasible to build a time machine. Stay tuned for that.


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