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Do Star Trek Transporters... Murder You?

This question has been raised since the very origins of Trek. Since the old days of "beam me up, Scotty". The question is: are you the same person before after a transport? or are you just a really good copy? Do you die everytime you step foot in a transporter room? This philosophical debate, raging on for decades, will finally get an answer. . . with physics.

The short answer to this question is yes, but real question that should be asked is: are you the same person before and after transporting? Here's why.

So why is the short answer yes? Well according to the Star Trek TNG Technical Manual, transporters work by use of a annular confinement beam and dematerializing the subject. You can read more about the transportation process here. An annular confinement beam is the actual transport process from point A to B. Every subatomic particle is perfectly dematerialized, sent by use us annular confinement beam, then perfectly reconstructed at the destination. The dematerializing process does technically kill anything it beams. Each of the subject's atoms, possibly subatomic particles, are separated and sent to the pattern buffer.  While the subject is in this state, it is surely not living, so the real question is this... are you the same person after you beam down to a planet?

Let's get technical. There are generally two ways the transporters can function. Option 1 is that the transporter dematerializes the subject, sends them through subspace within an annular confinement beam, with all of their atoms and information, and then rematerializes them at the coordinates. This is what is described happens in Star Trek. In option 2 the transporter simply scans the target, sends the information to the coordinates, then reconstructs the subject. In this way the matter is never transported, just the information, similar to computer code. You can send someone the information to build a house much easier than you can send a house. If this were the case, however easier it would be to accomplish, surely the person coming out the other side is a different person, right? It would be like using a food replicator to make a person. They would just be a copy of the original. On the bright side, this way would not require dematerializing the subject, which is a seemly extremely energy intensive task to accomplish.

So, let's think critically here. Would they be a  completely different person but with identical memories, appearance, life, hope, and dreams? Because, physically, they are completely different than the person who stepped in that transporter room. That may seem obvious, but our body's cells are replaced constantly. They die and new cells take their place. Eventually, almost our entire bodies are replaced by different cells than the ones we were born with. Are we the same person as the one we were born as? What is the difference between our bodies and transporting? What if we transport with our own cells?

Let's discuss option 1 again: sending all of the atoms and information through subspace. In this method, the person who stepped into the transporter is physically the same as the person who got beamed to the surface. They share the same atoms, same memories, same feelings, everything. They've got to be the same person, right? Let's assume they are. Let's assume that this is how the transporters work, which is how it's described, so,  everyone who transports really is the same person. Well, this raises a fairly large issue.

There are approximately 1028 atoms in a typical adult human. Each of those atoms is composed of subatomic particles: neutrons, electrons and protons, and the particles that make up those: quarks.
That is a lot of subatomic particles for a transporter to dematerialize, and a lot for an annular confinement beam to move. Atoms are held together through chemical bonding ie. electrostatic, covalent, etc. To separate these atoms, you need to use work, and using work takes energy. To separate the subatomic particles, as described in Trek: it takes much much more energy.

Using Einstein's famous equation E = mc2, if a 50 kg human being was converted to energy units, it would be approximately equivalent to 1,000 1-megaton hydrogen bombs. Now that is a lot of energy. In order to separate subatomic particles into their fundamental pieces, they would have to be heated to about 1,000 billion degrees. At this temperature all matter becomes radiation, ie. dematerialized. How much energy would be required to accomplish this? Well, it turns out to be about 10% of the rest mass of protons and neutrons in the form of heat, or, 100 1-megaton hydrogen bombs.

Enter your weight in pounds

Chief O'Brien would have to use the equivalent energy of 1-megaton hydrogen bombs to dematerialize you.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way. We need to discuss the amount of energy it would take to actually move the matter stream (annular confinement beam). We will reference Einstein's equation again. To accelerate the particles to a fraction of the speed of light, which would be required, it would take roughly 10 times more energy than to dematerialize the subject. Luckily, it would seem that if the Star Trek engineers can produce enough energy to dematerialize someone, then only 10 times that seems reasonable. Right?

  • Do you temporarily die during a transporting process? Yes
  • Are you the same person before and after? Depends on how you define it, but probably
  • Will this technology every exist? If we can find a powerful enough energy source

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