Installment Two of Physics in the 24th Century: the transporter, science fiction or fantasy?

(Note: Before beginning this post, I would like to remind my readers why I am writing them. It isn’t to educate me or my readers in quantum physics and quantum computing but rather to explore two fundamental questions: What happened to the idea in science fiction? And when did science fiction become fantasy?

Quick synopsis of my argument to date: In science fiction, I like the science to be real and the math to back it up. Too much of SF today is just fantasy science. Star Trek is a leading example of fantasy science in science fiction.)

Trekkies, Trekkers, I have another problem1: the transporter. How exactly does that work? Is it a matter of completely analyzing your quantum state and then using previously shared entangled particles to recreate what you have measured via spooky action? When or how is the perviously entangled particles transported to its destination? Is it sent there magically? The Enterprise away parties beam down to the planet’s surface willy nilly.

The Enterprise transporter appears to me to be a classical transporter and not an entanglement-assisted transporter. This violates all kinds of quantum information theory theorems. We’ll get to that in a bit.

However, first, I need to address a few tangental issues from my last post. (If you have not read it, here it is: “Installment One of Physics in the 24th Century”.)

If one already has warp drive, then why can’t one just warp space allowing, a person to simply step to the desired landing site via a warp bubble that spans the two locations? Remember, this is all short range. 1 Au at the most but, more practically, the distance from synchronous orbit to the planet’s surface. Why bother with all that analysis and figuring out how to transport the quantum state of the thing or person being analyzed to the planet’s surface? Just step across folded Space-Time! Seems to me, one just warps space and puts the passenger in a warped Space-Time bubble and give it a push and Bob’s your uncle. We already have warp technology in the Star Trek universe, right?

Well, the problem with this idea, and with creating an Alcubierre warp bubble to begin with, besides the prohibitive amounts of energy needed to create the bubble, is the extreme temperatures created by the Hawking radiation. (Click here for a layman’s explanation of the Alcubierre warp drive.) Everyone in the bubble would fry and the bubble would destablize. The good news is this only happens at superluminal velocities. At subliminal velocities, the bubble would be stable and no one fries. However, and it is a big however, exotic matter would be needed to create an energy-density field lower than that of vacuum2. That is, with a negative mass.

Even if we solve all these problems and had a Alcubierre warp drive to create a warp slide to the planet’s surface from the Enterprise, what would happen the first time we engaged such a drive near a planet’s surface? We would bend space around that planet. This may very well create a second gravity well. It would be similar to putting a very dense object, like a moon, and positioning it between the ship and the surface of the planet. (Really overlapping the planet and the ship.) This could be catastrophic. It might even move the planet out of its orbit.

Even if this did not happen, when we released the bubble, the particles that the bubble has gathered on this very short trip would destroy anything in front of the bubble, that is, the planet3,4. And thus destroy the ship as well. Perhaps we could simply maintain the warp slide and never let the bubble pop, as it were. The problem then becomes docking with such a distortion in space-time. And don’t forget about the energy costs! They would be, as Pfenning says, “roughly ten orders of magnitude greater than the total mass of the entire visible universe.” So, it seems we are stuck with teleportation or a classical shuttlecraft.

Before continuing on to our main topic, let’s first visit replicators. Replicators and the holosuite are applications of transporter technology. Since we already decided that the transporter would have to work via entanglement, we might run into a problem with replicators. Specifically, the no-cloning theorem.

With an entanglement-assisted transporter, the no-cloning theorem does not apply because we are not creating an identical copy of an arbitrary unknown quantum state. (If you are confused about the two different types of teleportation, classical and quantum entanglement-assisted, click here for a nice article on the topic and the follow up article on entanglement and Eigen states and vectors.) Rather we are entangling one system with another, not copying. As we measure system A, say, in the ship’s transporter, spooky action at a distance is forcing system B, entangled particles on the planet’s surface, into A’s quantum state. In other words, your quantum information state is sent to an entangled set of particles to create a new you. Plus the analysis itself destroys the original state. However, with the replicator, you are actually creating a duplicate quantum state of the item you are replicating. How do we do this? Is this possible? Can we store a back up quantum state to use as a template?

The no-cloning theorem states that it is impossible to create an identical copy of an arbitrary unknown quantum state. Let’s look at an example. (If you believe me about the no-cloning theorem and don’t care about the math, click here.) Say we invented a cloning operator, Ĉ, provided that

Ĉ|φ,ψ> = |φ,φ>

Basically, cloning φ and forcing the second particle into state φ. Let’s take a concrete example. Say we have a particle that is spin-up and another particle that is in an arbitrary state. Applying our operator, it wipes out the second particle’s information and produce a particle in the spin up state.

Ĉ|↑,ψ>  = |↑,↑>

Similarly, if you start with two particle that is spin down and the other particle in an arbitrary sate, we get:

Ĉ|↓,ψ>  = |↓,↓>

Now, what happens with a particle who’s spin is in another direction? For example, the X direction.

Ĉ|x+,ψ>  =  Ĉ| ↑ + ↓ ,ψ>

Since our cloning operator is a linear operator, if you apply it to a superposition state it is the same as applying it to the first state plus applying it to the second state.

Ĉ|x+,ψ>  =  Ĉ|↑,ψ> + Ĉ|↓,ψ>

And that is going to turn out to be the state |↑,↑> and |↓,↓> which is not going to be equal to the state |x+,x+>, which is our cloning operator’s target state.

Ĉ|x+,ψ>  =  |↑,↑> + |↓,↓>   ≠  |x+,x+>

Why is that? Well the state |x+,x+> would look like

|x+,x+>  = | ↑ + ↓ , ↑ + ↓ >
 2   2 

And if we multiply that out we get

|x+,x+>  =  1 (|↑,↑> + |↑,↓> + |↓,↑>+|↓,↓>)

However, our cloning operator has not given us the correct state. We are missing the |↑,↓>  and  |↓,↑> states. The linear operator just won’t permit this.

I know what you’re thinking, the no-cloning only applies in general, this only applies to arbitrary states.

For example, orthogonal states in a basis, specifically: { |0>, |1>}. We can clone the two states up and down but that’s all.5 Example, the orthogonal states6

and we can verify that in this special case. So we can clone these specific states7. Please see, the no-cloning theorem for the full proof. (If you are still confused and have read all the material I gave you links for, then go read this last one. Click here.)

Though it is impossible to make perfect copies of an unknown quantum state, we can make imperfect copies. There is hope that we may have replicators one day. Let’s just hope that the imperfections in “Earl Grey, hot” don’t kill you or blow the ship up. (Remember we can’t use classical error correction techniques on quantum states.) Back to the Enterprise’s transporter.

We run into problems with the transporter if it is not entanglement-assisted teleportation but “classical” teleportation because of the no-teleportation theorem, which states that an arbitrary quantum state cannot be measured with complete accuracy. So taking the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the EPR paradox, this means that the information cannot be converted to classical terms (bits). In other words, teleportation is impossible by first converting quantum state into classical bits, and then moving the bits, and constructing a specific quantum state elsewhere.6

Combined with the no-deletion theorem (given two copies of some arbitrary quantum state, it is impossible to delete one of the copies), this would rule out replication, especially if the patterns were stored on a classical computer and since you could not store a backup of the quantum state anyway, you would have no way to store a pattern for replication. This would also mean no storage of patterns, and no pattern buffer, for the transporter. And probably no pattern filters. Remember, classical error correction won’t work in a quantum system.

Finally, given the no-cloning theorem, our classical transporter would not be able to beam down a exact copy of you. That would not be good. How many flipped quantum states before you die? And, for that matter, how many quantum states will be improperly replicated or transported? I don’t know but I wouldn’t risk it. Leonard McCoy was right to be scared of the transporter and he should have been terrified of the replicators. Even if it is just one quantum state of one quantum particle in your whole body, what about accumulative effects? How many imperfectly copied quantum states can be tolerated before you die? And, as I said in the beginning, if the Star Trek transporter is a entanglement-assisted teleportation device, how in the world are the entangled particles transported to an arbitrary planet’s surface? You might as well just take the shuttlecraft.

Thus, Star Trek warp drive, transporter, replicator and probably the holosuite are all fantasy in science fiction drag. QED. NB: this may not apply to holosuites but it probably does. The way I understand the holodeck, it is a combination of replication and holograms. This violates the no-cloning theorem at the very least. It probably also violates the no-teleportation theorem. (If you’re confused about quantum computing, click here.)

Having said all that, I would like to briefly point point out that there seems to be a real lack of hard science fiction. That is, I have not come across too many stories where the plot turns on a scientific theory or mathematical equations. Even given a rubber science, that is a plausible extension of current scientific theory or even an implausible extension of current science such as the ones I outlined above, most plots rarely turn on the rubber science. Sure, there are Star Trek episodes that do turn on the transporter, but is that science fiction or is that simply thinking of a plot twist and using a magical solution to create that twist? I think the days of hard science fiction are gone. What happened?

Science Fiction has gone mainstream. And if I am allowed to crib from one of my own comments on my post, “Where has the idea in Science Fiction gone?”

“As James Gunn, in the same volume (The Craft of Science Fiction), says: ‘…to understand the problems of characterization in science fiction, we must understand why science fiction has different needs than other fiction.’ He goes on to quote Elizabeth Bowen from Notes on Writing a Novel: ‘Each character is created in order and only in order, that he or she may supply the required action.’ And later C. S. Lewis in ‘On Science Fiction': ‘Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his story are, the slighter, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl.’

To sum up, if the story turns on the development of the main character as it’s raison d’être, then it is mainstream fiction. If it turns on the idea, the future speculation, then it is science fiction.”

This may explain the glut of alien science fiction stories.

1. See installment one for the first problem.

2. Finazzi, Stefano; Liberati, Stefano; Barceló, Carlos (2009). “Semiclassical instability of dynamical warp drives”. Physical Review D 79 (12): 124017. arXiv:0904.0141. Bibcode:2009PhRvD..79l4017F. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.79.124017.

3. Michael John Pfenning. “Quantum Inequality Restrictions on Negative Energy Densities in Curved Spacetimes.” (PDF).

4. Everett, Allen E. (15 June 1996). “Warp drive and causality” (PDF). Physical Review D 53 (12): 7365–7368. Bibcode:1996PhRvD..53.7365E. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.53.7365. Retrieved 24 July 2013.

5. This is my attempt at free hand bra-ket notation. You get the idea.

6. However, you can transmit classical information by changing into orthogonal quantum states and then changing it back elsewhere to classical information. Orthoganol quantum states can always be distinguished. Further reading: Herbert, Nick (1982). “FLASH—A superluminal communicator based upon a new kind of quantum measurement”. Foundations of Physics 12 (12): 1171–1179. Bibcode:1982FoPh…12.1171H. doi:10.1007/BF00729622.)

7. After doing all the HTML for the math equations and after losing my work at least once because of problems with WordPress, I decided to just include images of the equations I want and go very light on those equations. However, I have provided links throughout this post for those interested in the proofs.


  • Mike LaPolla says:

    Re: Warp Space vs. Transporter

    First thought is transporting sometimes occurs within the USS Enterprise, e.g., from the Holodeck to the bridge. At other times it is used between ships. Warping space within ship housing(s) could result in some heavily wrinkled uniforms.

    • Mark LaPolla says:

      Right. And that’s why I gave up that idea pronto. I just brought it up to lay it to rest. I like the idea and would love to work it into a short story. But how?

      In the original series, site to site transporter, that is, intra ships, and to arbitrary parts of the ship, short of indicates that maybe the transporter was entanglement-assisted. However, that would preclude, I think, beaming down to an arbitrary site on the planet.

  • Mike LaPolla says:


    An impossibility. Even if the physics were plausible, to disassemble and reassemble remotely and maintain the spark of life with conscious-awareness is somewhere beyond the sea.

    • Mark LaPolla says:

      Well, since you are duplicating the exact quantum state, let’s just say that the soul also gets duplicated. And why not? However, the math does not support a classical transporter and the way it is used in science fiction does not support any other.

      What really gets my goat is that people use aliens to write Sword and Sorcery science fiction. Excuse me, Sword and Technology. It’s just an end run around SF editors who don’t want to publish fantasy. And my point is that even Star Trek, with all its technology is not really science fiction but fantasy in science fiction drag.

  • John Sprufera Pretty cool Mark, I like it and agree with you and McCoy. What do you think about miniaturization? Keeping the molecular structure intact

    • Mark LaPolla says:

      There is a lot of space in between molecules, between atoms in a molecule and even within an atom. Just as with file compression on a computer, there are two different types of possible miniaturization. One we will call lossless, you preserve all of the molecules and atoms, their number and you compress them into a smaller space. Type two is lossy. In lossy you lose information. In other words, atoms and molecules are dropped. I would not recommend doing this to a living thing. However, if you compress something in a lossless manner, the density of the matter goes up. I am not sure what this would do to a person but as with a white star or any other superdense matter, you may be creating a BIG dent in spacetime, the bending of spacetime is what makes gravity. So, in essence, you may be creating a miniature blackhole. Think about that the next time you want to miniaturize your car or your body. However, this really depends on the amount of compression and the original mass of the matter to be miniaturized. To get a blackhole, you’d have to compress something as big as the sun to a little tiny ball. But still, unlike Ant Man, compressing all the space out of the atoms and molecules in your body or in a sandwich or a car, may cause some strange things to happen. Remember that empty space is not really empty space.

    • Mark LaPolla says:

      And check out this video, too.

      The space is filled and not filled at the same time in the way that Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive.

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