Thrawn Rickle 48

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

© 1993 Williscroft

In all the episodes of the original “Star Trek” series, not once did Captain Kirk say: “Beam me up, Scotty!” It might be interesting to examine not only why he never said this, but also why he never could have said it.

It is not completely obvious when we examine something, but what we really are doing is interpreting the pattern of reflected photons from the object as they fall on the retina of each eye. The process is incredibly complicated—so much so, in fact, that computer scientists have not yet learned how to program even a super computer to simulate this with any accuracy or fidelity.

Photons are particularly suited to this task because they are exceedingly tiny, and they have no rest-mass. A particle with zero rest-mass can only exist when traveling with a velocity equal to c, or what is called light velocity. Think of it this way: it doesn’t exist unless it is moving very fast, so when it is “not moving” it obviously has no mass—since it doesn’t exist. Momentum is the product of an object’s mass and its velocity. In the case of a photon (moving at velocity c), its momentum is linked to is energy which, in turn, is linked to its frequency. This is why ultra-violet (high-energy) sunlight burns, while regular, garden variety yellow sunlight just feels pleasantly warm.

If we mentally substitute tennis balls for photons, we can then use a tennis serving gun to shoot the balls at a wall. By appropriately aiming the gun and observing which balls bounce back and which don’t, and also by observing the pattern of the returning balls, we can quite accurately measure the size, distance, and even other characteristics of the wall. Now replace the wall with a wooden rail. If the rail is not too thin, we still can get a relatively accurate picture of the nature of the rail.

There comes a point, however, where the tennis balls simply are too big to do the job. If we substitute something smaller, marble-sized balls for example, then we can once again continue to examine the rail. You should understand that this analogy is not perfect, because photons act in strange ways depending on how they are being used and on how they are being interpreted. Sometimes they act as waves instead of particles, and this confuses things, but for this discussion we will keep to just the particle character of photons. The point here is that no matter what we wish to examine, and no matter what we choose as our examining particle, sooner or later one of two things happens. Either the particle is too large to do the job any more, or the particle is too energetic, so that it disturbs, or even worse, destroys whatever is being examined.

The key point here is that sooner or later this will always happen.

Much that we wish to examine is on the atomic scale or even sub-atomic scale. Photons quickly become useless. Electrons work for a while, but they soon also become useless. In fact, sooner or later, all known particles become useless as observing devices. Eventually, when you use an appropriate particle to determine exactly where another particle is, you then have absolutely no idea what its momentum is—or put another way, when it was there. Conversely, if you use an appropriate particle to determine the exact momentum of another particle, then you lose all information about its location.

Werner von Heisenberg was the first scientist to quantify this information into what is now commonly known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In effect, the exact position and momentum of any specific atomic or sub-atomic particle is forever unavailable.

For the transporter to work, it must measure the exact position and momentum of every single atom in the object to be transported so it can transmit that information to the receiving site for reconstruction. It must make a template, and that is forever impossible.

And that’s the real reason why Kirk never said it, because Scotty can’t do it!

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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