Welcome back to Gaming On the Fringe. So far in this series I’ve covered topics that are scientifically plausible in the ways that science fiction has portrayed them, as well as being stock equipment for any starship. I’ve tackled warp drive, reactionless drive and even wormholes, but what about a classic of the Star Trek universe – teleporters? Let’s examine a couple of games that use this trope first. As a caveat, I am strictly talking about teleporters that don’t have open portals like…well, Portal. I covered those pretty well in the article on wormholes but here I’m talking about what seems to be instantaneous travel. While I am mostly talking about the technology itself, I may have to cover story topics as well. So here’s a big SPOILER ALERT just in case. Let’s get to it.
While most of the game revolves around time travel, as the title suggests, the plot is actually kicked off by use of a teleporter. At the very beginning of the game, the main character Chrono is heading to the Millennium Fair to see a demonstration of the new teleportation machine his friend Lucca has created. Her machine consists of two pods, in classic Star Trek style, and you can actually see the items being teleported as energy between the two.
Strangely, the transport itself seems to be about as slow as simply walking between the two pods, but I’ll chalk that up to being an early prototype. While Chrono demonstrates the technology works perfectly, when Marle asks to try it somehow her magical pendant interacts with the teleportation and opens a wormhole into the past. This is probably one of the best game examples of “a wizard did it” that actually makes sense. Later on Lucca somehow hacks together the teleportation tech from two pods into a small key to use the time travel wormholes, because this is how science works. Unfortunately, the teleporters play no part in the plot of the game after the initial time travel.
I’m pretty much just including this here because I’m a massive fan of the series. Beginning with the very first entry you could allow your worm soldiers to use a teleport move straight out of Star Trek. When used, the worm pulls out a communicator and gets teleported wherever you aimed the move, complete with Trek sound effects. They never explain the tech, but it’s getting mentioned because Worms is freaking awesome.
This leans heavily into spoiler territory. Throughout this game, the Institute can move its synths almost anywhere, yet nobody can figure out how they do it. Everyone knows that the Institute is based somewhere around the ruins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but nobody has ever found the entrance. As you go through the main quest you discover the reason why: there is no door to the Institute, and they use teleportation for everything.
By use of “molecular relay” technology the Institute can send their synths and other minions out into the Commonwealth without a trail leading back to the Institute itself. Even if a synth is tracked back – and since the Institute is the only one making synths, this just makes sense – there is no actual entrance to the Institute. You have to have access to the molecular relay which can teleport you inside the Institute itself, sealed beneath the MIT ruins. Once again, the tech is not explained but it seems to work on the classic “destroy in one place, reconstitute in another” from classic sci-fi.
We’ve seen a couple gaming examples, though dozens of others are out there, but what about real life teleporters? Star Trek fans, get ready to dislike me even more now.
In a nutshell, teleportation is the instantaneous transport of objects or people across large distances. Most usages of the trope involve destroying the object at one point, converting it to energy, and then beaming that down to wherever it is they wanted something teleported to. Now, this somewhat makes sense on the surface since general relativity proves that mass and energy are two sides of the same coin. The problem is that once you look deeper this idea falls apart rapidly.
The first problem is that energy and mass are not equivalent 1 to 1. The most well known science equation ever, e = mc2, tells us that Energy equals Mass times c squared, which is the speed of light squared. The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second so that means a small amount of mass converts into lots of energy. A good example is to look at a standard paperclip, which is usually a single gram. That single gram, when converted directly to energy, is roughly equivalent to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Going further, the standard 175 pound human has a mass-energy that’s larger than every single nuclear bomb ever detonated combined. As you can see, the simple act of beaming a human down to a planet is pretty much aiming a hugely powerful death ray at said planet. Not the best form of interstellar diplomacy.
Now, you may counter this with “but advanced technology could hold large amounts of energy!” and you might have a point. The problem is that the energy amount is only one hurdle for teleportation to overcome to become even plausible. Another is actually trillions of problems per any macroscopic item you care to teleport.
It’s called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, after its discoverer Werner Heisenberg. Yes, this is where Walter White got his name. This principle states that it is impossible to know all the quantum states of an particle completely. Put simply, nothing you can do will ever let you know everything about the state of a given particle. This is quite bad considering there are trillions of atoms in anything macroscopic so you have a large problem on your hands teleporting them. Star Trek humorously added “Heisenberg Compensators” in their technobabble to hand wave around this, but it’s just that – a hand wave.
To be fair, for anything inanimate this may not be much of a hindrance. IF we could find a way to destroy something one place and reconstitute it from energy to another and IF we could hold that much energy, we could possibly teleport inanimate objects. For living things, we run into the problem of; is the teleported person the original or just a clone. After all, if not every part is the exact same as the original, can you really say it’s the original? The science behind the idea says that honestly, it won’t be the same person who shows up that was originally teleported. Science 1, Star Trek 0.
Ignoring the use of wormholes for teleportation, there is a possibility of macroscopic teleportation that fits into current science. At the microscopic level, quantum physics allows particles to do irrational things like be in two places at once and even to travel through solid barriers. This is known as “quantum tunneling” and is never seen on the macroscopic level, although it is possible. There is a small, non-zero chance that at any moment every particle in your body could quantum tunnel and you’d find yourself on the beach in Hawaii. However, you might want to grab a snack and a book since you’re most likely going to have to wait longer than the estimated lifespan of the universe itself to see it happen microscopically. Pass the Pringles.
Some of you may be thinking “but I just saw that Chinese scientists teleported a photon!” and you’d be quite right. The problem is they used quantum entanglement on two photons which allows changes in one particle to affect the other. Read up on that Wiki link there, but rest assured I’ll cover that in a future article. Back to the topic at hand, by use of entangled photons the scientists could destroy a particle here but change the information about another particle to essentially transmit all of the information to the other location. Photons not being the original doesn’t affect us much, and this is a huge breakthrough for quantum communications and computing. As for the mass-energy problem earlier, this is averted since photons are massless. Zero times even a massive number is still zero. The actual report from the scientists has yet to be peer reviewed, so more information will likely be forthcoming in the next few months.
TL;DR is that Star Trek style teleporters are never going to happen. The actual science is just too much against them ever being anything plausible, and the downsides are numerous. While a solution involved wormholes – especially when done slower than light – is physically possible it would be very hard to set up, even for an advanced civilization. The fact is we might as well give up on teleportation for anything but fiction. Sadly, that’s all it ever will be.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and learned a bit along the way. If you have comments or questions ask below or catch me on twitter @ithinkibrokeit. See you all next article.