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Is Star Trek’s Transporter Really Possible?

We explore the rules of one of the greatest innovations in sci-fi history, Star Trek’s transporter! We also ask the big question: could this iconic science fiction technology become a science reality in our lifetimes?

One of the most iconic pieces of Star Trek technology! By converting matter into energy, objects and living beings can be “beamed” across great distances, where they are then re-converted back into physical matter. Not just a clever way to not require Starfleet away teams to have to jump in an expensive shuttlecraft every time they need to get back and forth from a starship, but a concept instantly recognizable as uniquely Star Trek, one which has the power to make or break a mission and that has been the focus of multiple stories in the franchise’s history. Noted astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi and pop culture expert Tamara Krinsky break it all down to see what it takes to, well, break down a living person and reassemble them at another location.

From a science perspective, Hakeem tackles both the scientific feasibility of converting matter into energy and (perhaps infinitely trickier) then converting the energy back into solid matter. Is there any existing technology analogous to this? Is it possible to even consider that this could be done to a living being without killing them? What about real world parallels with concepts such as quantum teleportation? And just how much data storage do you need in order to make this happen?

Meanwhile, Tamara looks at this incredibly reliable piece of fictional Star Trek technology from a story standpoint. What happens to someone’s soul (or, at least their consciousness) when their atoms are disassembled and reassembled elsewhere? What about Dr. McCoy’s well noted objections every time he steps on a transporter pad? Are McCoy’s fears as commonplace to a 23rd century citizen as a fear of flying is for people of today? 

All this and more in our first episode! Don’t forget you can also join the conversation in the comments on our YouTube page, so be sure to like and subscribe!

FURTHER READING

Want to dive a little deeper into the scientific concepts Hakeem touched on in today’s episode?

Quantum Teleportation  

“There is something that works in the real universe, and it’s called quantum teleportation, but it’s not [the transporter].”

Avogadro’s Number

“If you want to take a guess at how many atoms are in this cup or in this microphone, you start with Avogadro’s number.” 

Moore’s Law

“Here on Earth, we have this thing called Moore’s Law, and that has to do with the growth of processor speed, but I think there might be something similar for the growth of data storage.”

The Hebbian Learning Rule

“That’s the big one for me. How do you handle memory? Because as the saying goes, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’”

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

“There’s this thing called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, so [with the transporter] you can’t get both their motion and their location to arbitrary-precision…”

And for those of you who want to learn more about the early days of Star Trek and the behind-the-scenes stories surrounding the creation of the transporter…

The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry

One  of the foundational Star Trek texts, and one that Tamara referred to when researching today’s episode!

“Movie and TV-making technology at that time, making models and miniatures was pretty much how that was accomplished on screen, and it was really expensive. So if you were going to have a show every week where you had to bring a crew down in a shuttle or some kind of spaceship, that was going to be really expensive for the budget of the show. But it’s a basic premise, so you’re gonna have to figure out how to do it every week…you’ve only got a certain amount of time to tell your story and you want to use those most efficiently and most powerfully.” 

These Are The Voyages, TOS Season One by Marc Cushman and Susan Osborne

The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek – The First 25 Years by Ed Gross and Mark A. Altman

SUGGESTED VIEWING

As the transporter factors into virtually every single episode of Star Trek, it’s tough to narrow it down. But here’s a selection of episodes that helped inform the discussion of today’s episode.

Star Trek: The Original Series S1E5 “The Enemy Within”

The original “uh-oh, the transporter is being weird” episode, as Captain Kirk finds himself split into two selves after a transporter malfunction. 

Star Trek: The Original Series S2E4 “Mirror, Mirror”

A transporter malfunction causes Spock to grow a goatee! Well, really, it swaps the Enterprise crew with their malevolent doppelgangers from the soon-to-be-infamous Mirror Universe.

Star Trek: The Next Generation S2E7 “Unnatural Selection”

Ever wonder if the transporter could be used as a medical tool? This is the episode for you!

Star Trek: The Next Generation S5E15 “Power Play”

Ever wonder if the transporter could be used as a way to hold non-corporeal beings captive? Of course you have! Who hasn’t?

Star Trek: The Next Generation S6E2 “Realm of Fear”

A fine example of the basis for transporter-phobia, and perhaps the only depiction of the process of transporting through the eyes of the person being transported.

Star Trek: The Next Generation S6E4 “Relics”

The transporter is used to hold a familiar character from Trek history in stasis for many years.

Star Trek: The Next Generation S6E24 “Second Chances”

As shown in our episode, a transporter accident creates a clone of William Riker. Awkwardness ensues!

Star Trek: Enterprise S2E10 “Vanishing Point”

A crewmember thinks she is starting to dematerialize after going through the transporter for the first time. Maybe Dr. McCoy heard about this one…

Star Trek: Enterprise S4E10 “Daedalus”

Want more detail on how the transporter was invented in the Star Trek universe? Check this episode out!

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