Originally posted on December 31, 2013 at 1:25 AM
(Poof! You’re elsewhere!)
Matter Transmission, Matter transfer, Mass Transference, take your pick, has a nostalgic and rather pleasant association for me, with the Holidays. When I was 10 years old I developed the belief that space launches a la Gemini were too large and expensive and an alternative means of getting off earth needed to be found. I had the idea that some sort of energy beam such as a laser might be made to propel a space craft, not by heating a propellant as in the laser rocket concept but perhaps by sending magnetic particles aloft so a ship might be pulled along by the magnetic stream. When I was flying from Seattle to Michigan on Christmas Eve, 1965 I fell into conversation with a seat mate who first elucidated to me the idea of matter transmission.
My companion explained that someone had proposed that a person might turn his or her body into light for instance and travel at light speed then reconvert to matter. The idea was fascinating and even more so when a couple of days later I watched an Episode of Lost In Space (What there was before Star Trek came along) in which Will Robinson uses an alien matter transmitter to send him to earth and bring him back. He was riding on a “maser” beam (what there was before lasers), and how the outgoing process could be reversed to bring Will home wasn’t ever explained. This was by the way, Lost In Space, Episode 16, Season 1.
I had encountered the concept of sending people through some sort of communication channel on the old 50s/60s TV series Superman in a particular episode where the Professor invents a way to send material bodies over the telephone. All of the actual matter in a body, he tells us, is less than a pin point so we’re really just empty space and no reason this can’t pass through a wire. Well, force fields have something to say about all this but Superman wasn’t cutting edge science, nor for that matter was Lost n Space.
Having watched the L.I.S.episode I found myself spending a great deal of time thinking about ionizing matter and sending it’s constituent particles by means of a laser beam from one place to another. It turns out that subatomic particles and even atoms can be propelled from place to place by laser light but reconstructing the object at the other end is problematic.
In subsequent years I read every matter transmission story I could find. And of course Star Trek came along to popularize a matter transmission-related concept in the form of the Transporter. I say M.T.-related because strictly speaking, people, tools and material aren’t “transmitted” but are teleported by means of a mass-energy/energy-mass conversion process. We’ll return to this in a minute.
When I was 15 I read Arthur C. Clarke’s excellent Profiles of the Future (Circa 1962) and in one of his chapters Mr. Clarke explained that the essence of transmission is not the sending of sound or light energy but the sending of a “pattern” of information from which sound and pictures can be reconstructed. The essence of teleportation therefore would be the sending of a pattern of an object or person, from which that object or person could be reconstructed. Now I saw there were actually two types of matter transmission, one in which a solid object is turned into energy, a stream of subatomic particles or copied somehow into another medium such as a forc field so the object being sent can either be directly reassembled from the original matter or energy, or a sort of “mold” would exist in the transfer medium so the object would spontaneously assemble at point of impact. Isaac Asimov used the force field concept in one of his 1950s short stories in which a human body would be broken down to it’s constituent particles and the pattern of particles would be sent from one place to another as a pattern of force fields.
Returning to the Star Trek transporter which is called in The Next Generation a matter energy scrambler. (Hopefully not because one would expect the entire process would be carried through with as much “order” as possible.) What appears to be happening is material objects, including people are being turned into pure energy and photons being held in proximity to one another by means of some influence exerted by the shipboard Transporter device. The light can be turned back into matter at a distance and the process can be reversed. The effect can be made to work over a range of about 40,000 kilometers or about 23,000 miles which is about the altitude of a geosynchronous orbit of earth. The transporter probably does more to play hob with Star Trek’s credibility as a hard science fiction show than anything else but one would have to admit that few things are more fascinating than the transporter and the show would have a great deal of trouble existing in the form it has without the transporter or something very much like it.
It’s easy to see from E = MC^2 that the transporter beam would need to be so incredibly intense as to threaten much of the continent onto which it touches down upon. The idea of turning a human body into a stream of particles and sending it along in any manageably-short length of time would also necessitate the manipulation of significant amounts of energy. It would be cheaper energywise, to invent an inertia-nullifying force field bubble and use a tractor beam to whisk people to the surface and back.
Though today the quantum physicists are learning how to transmit various particles and even atoms via laser beams, we still have the issue of how to put particles back together into a working 3-D solid once they’ve been transmitted. 3-D printers are able to build up particles of metal or ceramic, even living cells into complex three dimensional artefacts, including some body organs but the prospect of actually building up an entire human body with it’s liquid and gas contents is awfully daunting for anything less than instantaneous execution. The word “instantaneous” is most likely the key if a human or other mammalian creature is ever to be Transmitted. The operation of any “body” likewise brain, mind personality is a hypercomplexity of energy flows in the form of modulated signals. They pervade not only the brain but the entire nervous system. We can envision a clone or possibly artificial body so constituted as to be able to accept an entire neuronal pattern from a given person. This body might then be sent to another star system via a “slow route” starship, possibly in cold sleep. How though could the original nerve energy flow pattern of the original person be gotten into the receptor body, especially at a distance. Were we to begin scanning at one point in the body, faithfully sending data from this body to that, the pattern would entirely have changed in the original before a small fraction could be scanned and transmitted.
James Patrick Kelly, SF author and Web guru gave me a hint back in the ‘90s in his story Think Like a Dinosaur. He used nanobots not exactly as I’m about to use them, but as an integral part of a matter transmission process. I realized that if nanos could somehow be inserted into or attached to each nerve cell in the body, including those in the brain of course and made to record at a signal the present, instantaneous state of each cell then the workings of the “transmitted” person could be shut down (yes, kill the primary) and each of the nanos could be queried for it’s “state” the the data stream could be fed via interstellar com link to the “receptor” body, corresponding nanos could be loaded with the information from the primary. There is also the issue of the connections previously existing between cells being re-established in the receptor body but assuming the technological achievements necessary to create nanobots of the complexity needed to carry this out, there are ways of recovering the connections. Our result would be not matter transmission exactly but a sort of transmission and “possibly” the only way a person originally alive on earth might visit a planet in another solar system. We can say “visit” because if our artificial receptor bodies turn out to be possible at all, there seems no reason that once transmitted the updating mind/nervous pattern couldn’t be recopied for further transmission to either come home again or venture on to some other destination.
I call this potential means of transmitting people “bioteleportation.” It’s not any good for dropping in on an alien culture from orbit or for everyday commutes to work or school but might help us colonize the galaxy. Just as enthusiasts of near-space flight found it necessary to learn orbital mechanics, gas dynamics, thermodynamics and structural shell theory, starfarers or at least those who send them outward will rely upon nanorobotics, autoreplication, neuro science, communication theory, cryogenics and artificial life.
Happy New Year. May there be many billions to come!