Diving Into the Cracks: Transporters and Replicators in Star Trek

I think part of the fun of getting into a fictional world of any sort is really getting into that world. I love all the technical details of everything (as long as it’s fun – most harder/”realistic” sci-fi bores me *coughHonorversecough*). Whether it’s actual technical details, like about ships, tech, or magic, or other more esoteric details, like the differences in practice and beliefs of different sects of a religion, or politics, history, or whatever, I dig that. (I never thought the politics/talky portions of the Star Wars Prequels were boring, at least as far as that goes; Lucas’s sins are manifold, but that wasn’t one of them.) I figure a lot of fans are like me, because we keep seeing all these sort of technical manuals and background sourcebooks and whatnot. Star Trek in particular seems to attract that kind of geek.

But there are different levels of these geeks. Some folks just are content to get the basics of how a thing works, just so the various plots make sense (or fail to make sense, when things are inconsistent). Others like to get more into the details of things, even thinking of headcanon to fill in the gaps that the official canon leaves (because no single writer can think of all possible permutations of every situation for every thing in their work). And still others think way too much about stuff, and read too much into things. I’m obviously of the middle, detailed-yet-balanced group.

Why bring that up? Well, today I’m going to be writing about transporters and replicators in Star Trek. In essence, these are magical devices that cheaply help move the plot along, and add a bit of futuristic spice to the franchise universe. One, as suggested by its name, transports things and people to where they need to go, without use of intervening vehicles. The other is a little less obvious by name, though its primary purpose is to magically copy food and drink for the characters, without having to have anyone physically make the food (that takes time and props and maybe even another set for a kitchen and/or dining room, and more actors too). Of course, in-universe this is technology, not magic, but the plot functions are the same.

Of course, as tech it can be explained. And geeks and nerds love explaining stuff like this. Unfortunately, general TV audiences don’t really care too much about how their story devices work, and the vast majority of TV writers are not scientists or engineers, who give a crap about how things work other. A more caring writer, who has inclinations towards making things make sense, though, will at least put in plausible-sounding technobabble, to make the magic make sense. Thus, we hear about things like “Heisenberg Compensators” and “matter streams” and the like. To the fans who like to make explanations, these nuggets are gold.

Unfortunately, some only get to the shallow explanation. Since it is shallow, and most people don’t care to go deep, these shallow explanations can spread around fandom, and become the “accepted” explanation. In the case of replicators and transporters, it has become the “accepted” explanation that these things convert matter to energy, and/or vice versa.

To me, this is a very shallow look at how these techs work. The idea comes from one time that some character said something about how the transporter turns matter to energy and back again; and for replicators, how Voyager had to ration replicator use because of energy concerns. This is shallow, because it’s a valid explanation, but doesn’t go into any detail, or look at any contradictions (and with about a zillion episodes of television, there are going to be contradictions).

I think that the first thing that is wrong is that matter-energy is being converted at all. This doesn’t seem to be the actual case. Let’s start with replicators, because it seems that it only goes one way (it actually doesn’t – at least once characters talk about returning dirty dishes to the replicator, which means the process is reversible). If things were merely made up out of whole cloth (from pure energy), just how much energy would be needed? Well, let’s assume you have a 1kg meal set (which includes all the dishes needed for the meal), since that’s easy for calculations. Energy-matter conversion is a simple equation E=mc^2, where the energy will be in Joules (J). With 1kg of matter, that comes out to 89.9 billion-million J. That’s a lot. Like, seriously, a lot. If all that were to come out in an explosion, it would be the equivalent of 21.48 megatons of TNT. To put that into perspective, the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States was ‘only’ 15 megatons. (This makes sense: the way nuclear weapons work is that the nuclear reactions convert matter to energy; that 15 MT device (“Castle Bravo”) converted about .7kg of it’s 10,700kg total mass into energy.)

Is it realistic to think that this much energy is flying through the ship (or home! because normal citizens on planets have replicators in their house) every time someone wants some din-dins? We know that Star Trek ships have some…problems with their energy systems, and exploding in red-shirts’ faces. But that’s on the order of hand grenades, not nukes.

Plus, to get that much power, they need some power source. And the only way to reliably get that much power is with an matter-antimatter reactor, which converts mass (matter and antimatter) into energy. Fortunately, this is how a Trek ship generally gets its power. However, that power comes at the use of fuel. To get that 1kg meal, you’d need 1/2kg of matter and 1/2kg of antimatter. At least, because that assumes 100% efficiency, and as far as we know, Trek tech hasn’t learned quite how to violate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. That’s fuel that going directly into making your massive pile of tendies, and not twisting the laws of physics every which way to move you several hundred times the speed of light, without any inconvenient relativity effects.

So, if not that, then what? Well, there are other hints. The sfx used for the replicators is very similar to the sfx used for transporters. Also, we know that certain things cannot be replicated – living things, sufficiently complicated stuff, gold-pressed latinum, and so on. So…what if the replicator is merely a small transporter? But, you ask, how does the replicator get all its meals? Is there still a galley, making whatever could possibly be asked for?

No. What a replicator is doing is taking from stores of other substances, and then making it into whatever you ask. These things have to be programmed, so it’s not like it can make anything (thus, the ‘replicator’). And you have to already have the base substances, so you can’t just magic up some latinum and be rich instantly (and/or crash the galactic economy) – you have to have latinum already in the replicator storage pool. And, since most of what is made with replicators is food…where can you get extra matter for food? That’s right: the toilet! That’s just used food, so it’s cool. Rearrange all the atoms in poopoopeepee, and you get food, and no longer the nasty stuff. Simple, easy recycling: good on a spaceship.

But what about the high energy costs, as per Voyager? Well, I think we can guess that transporters take a lot of energy, and if replicators are mini-transporters, they will also use a lot of energy. A ship, especially one traveling nearly constantly in a cruising state, won’t be using its transporters a lot. But replicators would be used every time someone gets a bit peckish, which in a crew of 75 or so, would be hundreds of times a day (especially those Bolians.) That could be quite a bit of energy used. And I don’t know if it was because of fuel concerns specifically; I’m not sure it was specifically stated to be so, or if you could headcanon it to be that the constant use of the energy system by replicators would wear them out: not a problem in friendly space, or anywhere near friendly space, where you could get spare parts, but definitely a problem when you’re decades from home; at any rate, it stops being a thing by the third or fourth season, so whatever.

So, how about that transporter then? Is it converting people and things to energy, then back to matter again? I don’t think so. Like I said above, this may have been explicitly stated at one point, but the idea is contradicted several times. First, there is the mention of a ‘matter stream’. What would a matter stream be but…matter? Second, you still have that problem of having tons and tons of energy moving about. What happens when the transporter fails to turn someone back to matter, and all that energy (50-150 times the energy of that 1kg meal) gets released on the transporter pad, or in that park? We already know that transporters are not 100% reliable – these things mess up often enough that scaredycats like Barkley use them as little as possible (probably like a .00001% failure rate – but do you want to be that person that becomes a blob being for a few seconds while dying an excruciating death?).

And, if it were so, you would have no problems with energy or weapons. Why use torpedoes when you can just beam some energy (former matter) into or near the opposing ships? Boarding parties got you down? Just beam them back to their own ships, but forget to make them back into matter – it’s only a 1-2 gigaton boom. Why keep specialized fuel when you can just do the same to your own generator (just not a whole person…hopefully). Since they never do this, and they do have fuel for their ships (antimatter fuel specifically, and supposedly the opposed matter for it), and that this particular issue never even comes up as a possibility of failure, seems to suggest that the transporter does not turn you into energy to hurl you through the aether.

So what then? Well, let’s go look back at that ‘matter stream’ thing. The transporter has been described as something along the lines of “tearing all your particles apart, throwing them across space, and then putting them back together again”. I don’t know if such a thing has ever been said on the show, but it’s certainly the idea of the transporter. So, why add a bunch of matter-energy stuff to that? Just because it sounds more sciencey and impressive? You know what sounds even more impressive? Saying the transporter squishes and tears you into a bazillion pieces, moves you through 16-dimensional space, and then makes you come back together again, just as it found you (not really, because it takes your diseases out (sometimes), turns on the safety for your gun, etc., but close enough for space-government work). And it does it at a distance, not needing the actual physical transporter device to be anywhere near you at either end (I figure the transporter pad has to be somewhere in the 16-dimensional path, though; otherwise, why have it in the first place?).

A final aside: the transporter, contrary to the comic at the top, actually proves you don’t die, and that you have a soul, of sorts. This may seem weird, since Star Trek is supposed to be this materialist humanist utopia, without a religion in sight (at least on Earth). Well, that’s another one of those shallow explanations. If you have gods and energy beings and telepaths and espers and all that, why not souls? And one episode of DS9 proved that there are indeed souls, again, of a sort. In the episode “Our Man Bashir,” most of the main cast is involved in a transporter accident, which leaves the ‘putting-together’ part of the transporter inoperable. But our heroes are fine, since the data needed to put them back together is stored in the computer. Well, sorta, since I guess it’s kinda like RAM, and it only saves just long enough to get used, or something like that, so the patterns have to be saved in other parts of the station’s computers, including the holodeck. The relevant thing here is that the neural patterns and the physical patterns are separate.

Now, if you were a materialist, you’d say that one’s neural patterns would just be based on chemical and physical reactions in the brain; these ‘neural patterns’ are just merely a part of the physical pattern. But that’s obviously not the case here. In fact, the holodeck computer could only hold the physical pattern (which involved all the processes of life – which are apparently too complicated for a replicator to recreate, mind). Which means the neural patterns are waaaaay more complicated than all the quantum stuff involved in a person’s body. But if your neural patterns are merely part of your physical body, they can’t, by definition, be more complicated than the body, since they are merely a part of the complication. Thus, those neural patterns are something else entirely. One could very well call that the soul. (Though it’s obvious that it’s not a Christian understanding of the concept (such as there is a particular ‘Christian’ understanding of the soul), so that’s fine for fedora-tippers like Roddenberry and friends.) This goes along with the idea of the Katra: the Vulcan soul, which can apparently be stored in jars.

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