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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

What Is the Most Preposterous Device in Science Fiction?

The world of science fiction is a world of strange and wonderful devices. Some of these machines are somewhat plausible, and others are very far-fetched. Let's look at some of these devices, moving from the fairly plausible towards the more unbelievable, ending up with the most unbelievable machine in the annals of science fiction.

A fairly plausible device is the hand-held energy-shooting device. In the Star Trek set of TV shows and movies, this takes the form of the phaser, a little ray gun. In the Star Wars movies the favorite hand-held energy device is the light saber. Given the progress man is making in developing high-energy lasers, both phasers and light sabers seem like something we may well see within a few centuries. Another type of very plausible device is the palm-sized communicator used in the original Star Trek series. We basically already have such a thing in the form of a cell phone.

Then there is the walking robot. In the Star Trek universe we see an example in the android named Data. In the Star Wars universe we see an example in the form of the walking android robot C-3PO. Neither are terribly implausible. It is very questionable whether we ever will have robots or computers that ever rival humans in intelligence. But we probably will one day have pretty good chat-bot software that could be hooked up with a robot body, resulting in something that allows a robot to talk in a way resembling human conversation. Since neither Data nor C-3PO really show any superhuman intelligence, such robots are not much of a strain on our credulity.

In the Star Wars universe, we have the large orbiting satellite called the Death Star, capable of destroying an entire planet. Such a device is not at all preposterous. A nation today could build a similar device, creating a huge satellite filled with nuclear weapons rather than some energy death ray. It is not much of a stretch to imagine a planet-destroying device that used a huge laser or pulsed-energy weapon.

In both Star Wars and Star Trek, we have hologram devices capable of projecting three-dimensional images that resemble human figures. In the Star Wars universe, this technology doesn't seem very sophisticated. But in the Star Trek universe, hologram technology is pushed to the max. Crew members of a space ship can enjoy something called a holodeck, which provides holographic simulations that include a surrounding landscape and three-dimensional figures that look just like real people. So if you're on a starship, you can walk into the holodeck, request a particular simulation, and then poof, it may suddenly be just as if you are on the beach on Tahiti, complete with scantily clad women surrounding you.

The basic idea isn't particularly unbelievable. If you were in a holograph room that included both holographic projectors on the floor, holographic projectors on the ceiling, and holographic projectors on the walls, we can imagine that this might create an illusion that made it appear just like you were in some entirely different place. The same technology could produce holograms resembling human figures. But in the Star Trek series, the holodeck users also seem to engage in tactile interactions with the holographic projections. A character may sit down on a holographic table, lie down on a holographic bed, or kiss and hug a holographic figure. I have no idea how such tactile interactions could occur using holographic technology. So we might put down Star Trek's holodeck device as something that is merely semi-plausible. 

A Star Trek gadget that seems increasingly plausible is the replicator device, capable of almost instantly producing any equipment or food.  The more 3D printing technology advances, the more plausible such a device seems. 

One staple of science fiction is the faster-than-light spaceship. In the Star Trek universe, we have something called a warp drive, that supposedly allows a spaceship to travel faster than the speed of light, by warping the space in front of the spaceship. In the Star Wars universe, spaceships travel faster-than-light by doing something called “jumping through hyperspace.” Although not totally preposterous, such devices are not very plausible. We know of no physics that would allow a spaceship to travel faster than light by warping space in front of it, nor do we know of any such thing as “hyperspace” that might allow spaceships to travel from star to star instantaneously. About the best you can say is that there conceivably could exist undiscovered physics that might allow such things to occur.

Both Star Wars and Star Trek seem to rely on a type of device that is never discussed: an artificial gravity generator. For example, in the Star Trek universe, characters walk around on a spaceship on which there is normal gravity just like we have on Earth. We know of a very simple method that will reliably generate artificial gravity in a spaceship. The spaceship can have a spinning component that generates artificial gravity by centrifugal force, like the Jupiter-bound spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. 



 You can get artificial gravity with a design like this

But the spaceships in Star Wars and Star Trek seem to have no design that would generate artificial gravity by centrifugal force. Maybe the assumption is that the ships are using some type of artificial gravity generator. But we know of no way in which a device could ever generate artificial gravity without using centrifugal force. This seems an area in which our science fiction falls short in the credibility department.

But what is the most ridiculous device in any major science fiction series? Here the booby prize must be given not to anything in the Star Wars universe, but instead to something in the Star Trek universe. The most preposterous device in any major science fiction show is the transporter device used on the starship Enterprise.

In Star Trek the transporter supposedly works by doing three things:
  1. A scan is made that reveals the exact position of all molecules in the person being transported.
  2. Over the course of a few seconds, that person's body is then dematerialized.
  3. Over the course of a few seconds, the person's body is then rematerialized or reconstructed at some distant location.
This is basically a “destroy and reconstruct” algorithm. The scan part of the process seems unrealistic. How could some machine possibly determine the exact state of all of the particles inside your brain? We can get a blurry look inside someone's brain by doing an X-ray, although there is radiation exposure whenever that is done. The radiation exposure of some type of “precisely scan all particles inside the body” would probably be prohibitive. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle tells us that you cannot determine both the position and velocity of any particle, casting the greatest doubt on the possibility of doing a scan giving you the exact particle information corresponding to a body.

In Star Trek someone can be transported or “beamed” from the transporter room of one spaceship to the transporter room of another spaceship. That's not the most laughable absurdity, because at least in that case you have a transporter machine on each end of the transport, one machine doing the scanning and de-materialization, and the other transporter machine doing the reassembly of the body. But in Star Trek people are also transported from a transporter room to the surface of a planet (where there is no transporter device), and from the surface of a planet (where there is no transporter device) back to the transporter room. But how could the process needed for the “from the surface of the planet” transport possibly occur from the surface of a planet, where there is no machine there to do the scanning of the person's molecular state? And how could the process needed for the “to the planet surface” transport possibly occur on the surface of a planet, where there is no machine there to do the reassembly of the body from the scanned molecular state? It's like imagining that you are taking a train to the middle of some country that has no trains or train tracks.

Any transporter device like that in Star Trek would also be a body duplication device. For once someone's molecular state had been scanned and kept in a machine, there would be no need to discard that information. The same information could be used to recreate a new copy of someone who had died – or any number of copies of someone. The result would be ridiculous scenes like this:

Mr. Scott: Bad news, Captain Kirk. A monster on the planet attacked and devoured Mr. Spock.
Captain Kirk: Why do you think that's bad news? Use your head, Scotty! When we transported him down to the planet, we scanned his exact molecular state. Just use that stored state to reassemble him in the transporter room. He'll be as good as new, and have no memory of what happened.
Mr. Scott: How silly of me not to think of that!

When creating the Star Trek series, Gene Roddenberry could have avoided the nonsensical idea of transporting people by disassembling all their atoms and reassembling them. He could have come up with the idea of a “wormhole transporter” that would have achieved teleportation by having people move through a time-space wormhole. The idea would be that some machine would generate a spacetime wormhole between the transporter and some distant location, and that your body is propelled through the wormhole to end up in some distant spot, without your body ever getting disassembled and resassembled. Although relying on undiscovered physics, such a teleportation system would have avoided the most absurd aspects of Star Trek's transporter mechanism, such as the idea that a body could be reassembled on some distant planet without there even being an assembly device on that planet.