Sunday, April 21, 2013

Troubles with Transporters

The “transporter” is a widely-known piece of Star Trek technology. For the uninitiated, essentially the device grabs hold of you (stepping on the transporter deck is optional but is somehow helpful, perhaps in reducing the amount of energy required) and converts you into a beam of energy. The beam of energy goes a certain distance (the distance is limited to tens of thousands of kilometers) and spontaneously reassembles the person that underwent the process into his or her original state.

Maybe for another post I’ll talk about how teleportation could perhaps conceivably work…but for now, let’s just assume the system really does work as the shows and movies portray it working…I gotta say though that I would under no circumstances be comfortable with my body being converted into a beam of energy and being reassembled elsewhere…what about signal interference? I don’t know how the beam moves or what form of energy it consists of (Star Trek isn’t clear about that), but whatever it uses has to share frequencies with something else, energy of the same kind in the universe…which means you could get interference of some sort…which would not give a pleasant outcome at reassembly-after-the-beam-reaches-its-target…Star Trek actually plays with this possibility from time to time, but not realistically enough in my humble opinion…

But Star Trek commits larger gaps of logic, failing to bring out points that really should come up in stories featuring transporters. Consider this, if you really can convert a person into a beam of energy…if you really can take every piece of matter and convert it into data (which watching enough Star Trek makes clear is what happens), why couldn’t you just retain a backup copy of the data, in case you lose somebody on the next away mission? Redshirt Martin dies on planet Xray, but when you get back to the ship, you reassemble a new one of him from the stored data of his last transport…or perhaps from his detailed physical last year. Of course, that person would not retain any memories of what had happened between the last backup and his untimely death, but you could always bring him up to speed…in this the transporter could function rather like a saving your game in a realistic 3D game…except the “game” would be reality.

Though if you could bring people back—let’s assume for a minute that whatever a person’s soul consists of can be captured as data—I imagine the soul might be something you could capture, but I’m not sure (and am not inclined to take the chance it wouldn’t be captured—again, I wouldn’t want to take a trip anywhere by transporter)—but if you really could bring back someone 100% the same, wouldn’t people start to treat real life like a game? I mean wouldn’t they begin to take huge risks they otherwise would not take? After all, they’d only be the push of a button away from coming back to life in an earlier version of yourself if something went wrong…

And there are lots of other logical problems with the transporter system. Say your transport distance limit is 50,000 kilometers…why not move the signal by relay? In radio this happens all the time—it’s very common to rebroadcast a signal received from elsewhere. So if you wanted to go from the Earth to the Moon, a series of satellites in orbit and in Lagrangian points could rebroadcast you through repeaters all the way there without you even knowing you’d passed through them (you’d need seven of them). Granted, the number of repeaters would become ridiculous at interstellar distances, but there would be no compelling reason why you wouldn’t be able to get around at least the inner Solar System by transporter alone.

Star Trek talks about a transporter signal degrading after a short time, preventing some of what I’m talking about here, but never logically gives a reason for why it would degrade. In fact, my hunch is that keeping the data secure and unchanging is something we would find a whole lot easier to do than to accurately gather the data in the first place (see Heisenberg compensators under the "capabilities and limitations" section of a Wikipedia article on Transporters). So if you could store the signal at will, why take the entire crew with you in physical form? Why not store some of them as data and assemble them when you need them? You could do that at least with specialized crew members, such as, say, an expert in Romulan genetic studies—or you could pull out of memory an entire battalion of security officers if the ship were being overrun. Or for long duration missions, even the entire crew could go into data storage…the computer could bring them back out when needed. It certainly would save you money on building holodecks to keep the crew entertained…

And if you can store data without error—something our early 21st century technology does quite well—why couldn’t you manipulate the data, something we are also pretty good at now (not to mention what we should be able to do several hundred years in the future)? So you could isolate the part of the data that contains a patient’s arm, say…so if security officer Martin only loses an arm to an alien disrupter, instead of completely rebooting him you could simply beam just his arm from his last transport recording onto the rest of his body…as good as before, no need to perform surgery (though he might need to get his new I LOVE MOM tattoo redone…).

Manipulation of transporter data would in fact logically affect all medicine. Someone is sick with an alien bug? Beam the germs out of her body—or beam her away and back, but don’t beam the germs back. Any kind of injury? Beam in unaffected body parts. In fact, there might be quite an industry in deliberately manipulating the transport data to make you younger…or taller…or to change your gender or race or really any physical thing about you. Say goodbye to weight loss clinics!

And again, if it were actually doable to convert a person into data…hey, digital data is easy to duplicate. A transporter could be used as a personnel copy machine…if James T. Kirk is your best battlefield commander, make enough copies of him to run every warship in the fleet…but don’t let them in the same room together—not that universe would explode in some sort of paradox—but the egos, the egos…Dear Lord!

Star Trek fails to tap into all of these logical outshoots of the technology they propose—so fan fiction in the Star Trek universe straightjackets a writer into these constraints applied without a compelling reason. However, writers inclined to create similar universes with a similar devices, called a “teleporter” or some such, should feel free to make their technology do things Star Trek never imagined…


Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Kingdom of Dark Matter

The term "dark matter" refers to a number of hypothetical substances proposed to provide the mass that galaxies and galaxy clusters need to have to spin as rapidly as they spin and to stay in cluster formations with one another--mass which the observable parts of galaxies contain only a tiny fraction of and which by best calculations is too evenly distributed to be hidden in massive objects at given points like black holes.

There currently exists no universally acceptable explanation of dark matter--in fact, some physicists claim instead the nature of gravity is something other than expected at large scales, Tensor-vector-scalar gravity and Modified Newtonian dynamics being two such attempts to explain how observed evidence of galactic astronomy coincides with known laws of physics without evoking matter that has never been observed.

In general, physicists have preferred imagining unobserved matter over changing already-known gravity to solve this problem, inventing "dark matter." Among the hypothetical candidates for what this substance could be are numerous descriptive categories, including "hot," "warm," and "cold" (and combinations of the three). Among these, cold dark matter is generally favored, which itself has three possible explanations that have been proposed (and an unknown number of theories that no one has proposed as of yet)--axions, MACHOs, and WIMPs. Of these three, WIMPs--"Weakly Interacting Massive Particles" seems to be the most popular.

"Weakly interacting massive particles" would mean that you and I and everything we know is being passed through at every moment by a barrage of particles that are so numerous and so large that they actually outweigh normal matter by a factor of something like six to one. So roughly one seventh of all that exists would be the visible things that you and I can see--six sevenths would be this invisible stuff thought to permeate all parts of the galaxy we inhabit in a footprint roughly the same as shape as the galaxy itself.

These particles would not interact with electromagnetism, which means light--which is electromagnetic, would not detect them. They would form no covalent or ionic bonds like atoms do, so it would seem they'd build no complex arrangements of particles--nor would they react to the essentially magnetic fields of bonded atoms, making it possible for them to float right through objects without been seen or felt. (Really, this should be called "invisible" matter rather than "dark matter," but the term is what it is.) They would interact with gravity (this is the whole reason they were invented in the first place) but if they were evenly distributed over, say, the solar system, their greater-gravity-attraction than normal matter (by outnumbering normal matter) would not be detected because their distribution would pull equally from all sides at once on this scale, balancing one another out.

As a source for speculative fiction story ideas, dark matter has a number of possibilities, only a few of which I'll explore in this post. One would be to imagine that dark matter particles do bond with one another in complex arrangements, based on physical principles that have not yet been discovered. So scientist X discovers a means by which dark matter can be visualized (say with a focused neutrino beam or something like that)...and he discovers that we human beings are surrounded not only by invisible matter, but that this matter is linked together into structures of some kind. Perhaps the structures could appear to be natural and uninhabited, or perhaps they could appear that way at first, the scientist later discovering somehow that beings inhabit this invisible world of particles of differing physical reactions than we have. And that we are every bit as invisible to them as they are to us...or perhaps, they would see objects such as our sun because of its massive generation of neutrinos, but just barely...while we would be completely invisible to them.

For the story's sake, this physicist would find a way to interact with these beings of dark matter. Perhaps he or she would even find a way to enter into their kingdom, transforming himself into their substance through some sort of Star Trekish transporter-like analogue, which would be set to convert normal matter into this strange "dark" stuff.

Such beings in complex arrangements completely independent of us, based on physics human scientist have not even imagined, made of dark matter, inspires another story setting for me. What if the situation with dark matter were much more subtle? So the physicist investigating them sees them only as particles...but then later discovers that on a large scale--as in the size of a galaxy--and over lengthy time, limited by light speed and the relative low field strength of gravity--the particles interact with each other in a way that mimics the interactions of human brain cells in a strange slow way. As if the entire galaxy is shadowed by a single intelligence, a single consciousness made of dark matter. Other galaxies would also prove to be individual minds...and normal matter would be for these minds just a strange and unexplained little set of corpuscles inside their massive bodies...