Star Trek: Instantaneous Matter Transport

star trek transporter
A Star Trek-style transporter that teleported humans and matter from ship to planets and other locations. Image from a Star Trek exhibit, taken by Konrad Summers, CC-BY-SA-2.0.

"Beam me up, Scotty!"

It's one of the most famous lines in the "Star Trek" franchise and refers to the futuristic matter transportation device or "transporter" on every ship in the galaxy. The transporter dematerializes entire humans (and other objects) and sends their constituent particles to another destination where they are perfectly reassembled. The best thing to come to personal point-to-point transportation since the elevator, this technology seemed to have been adopted by every civilization in the show, from the inhabitants of Vulcan to the Klingons and Borg. It solved a multitude of plot problems and made the shows and movies iconically cool.

Is "Beaming" Possible?

Will it ever be possible to develop such technology? The idea of transporting solid matter by turning it into a form of energy and sending it great distances sounds like magic. Yet, there are scientifically valid reasons why it could, perhaps, one day happen.

Recent technology has made it possible to transport—or "beam" if you will—small pools of particles or photons from one location to another. This quantum mechanics phenomenon is known as "quantum transport." The process does have future applications in many electronics such as advanced communication technologies and super-fast quantum computers. Applying the same technique to something as large and complex as a living human being is a very different matter. Without some major technological advances, the process of turning a living person into "information" has risks that make the Federation-style transporters impossible for the foreseeable future.

Dematerializing

So, what's the idea behind beaming? In the "Star Trek" universe, an operator dematerializes the "thing" to be transported, sends it along, and then the thing gets rematerialized at the other end. Although this process can currently work with the particles or photons described above, taking apart a human being and dissolving them into individual subatomic particles is not remotely possible now. Given our current understanding of biology and physics, a living creature could never survive such a process.

There are also some philosophical considerations to think about when transporting living beings. Even if the body could be dematerialized, how does the system handle the person's consciousness and personality? Would those "decouple" from the body? These issues are never discussed in "Star Trek," although there have been science fiction stories exploring the challenges of the first transporters.

Some science fiction writers imagine that the transportee is actually killed during this step, and then reanimated when the body's atoms are reassembled elsewhere. But, this seems like a process that no one would willingly undergo.

Re-materializing

Let's postulate for a moment that it would be possible to dematerialize—or "energize" as they say on screen—a human being. An even greater problem arises: getting the person back together at the desired location. There are actually several problems here. First, this technology, as used in the shows and movies, seems to have no difficulty in beaming the particles through all kinds of thick, dense materials on their way from the starship to distant locations. This is highly unlikely to be possible in reality. Neutrinos can pass through rocks and planets, but not other particles.

Even less feasible, however, is the possibility of arranging the particles in just the right order so as to preserve the person's identity (and not kill them). There is nothing in our understanding of physics or biology that suggests we can control matter in such a way. Moreover, a person's identity and consciousness is likely not something that can be dissolved and remade.

Will We Ever Have Transporter Technology?

Given all the challenges, and based on our current understanding of physics and biology, it does not seem likely that such technology will ever come to fruition. However, famed physicist and science writer Michio Kaku wrote in 2008 that he anticipated scientists developing a safe version of such technology in the next hundred years.

We may very well discover unimagined breakthroughs in physics that would allow this type of technology. However, for the moment, the only transporters we're going to see will be on TV and movie screens.

Edited and expanded by Carolyn Collins Petersen