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Is Beaming Down in Star Trek a Death Sentence?

The transporter mechanism in Star Trek is quite cool for science fiction, in that you could set the destination, step onto a platform, and find yourself on an unexplored planet. Most of the time. We know the fictional tech was invented purely to save money on the original series, compared with using a spaceship to reach the surface of planets. It also saved time. But if it were real, would you trust such a device?

According to the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, when a person steps onto the transporter pad, the computer uses “molecular imaging scanners” to scan his or her body, before the person is converted into a “subatomically debonded matter stream.” In other words, a crew member is taken apart piece by piece, breaking apart the bonds between individual atoms. Then, particles are streamed into a “pattern buffer," where they remain briefly before being sent to their destination.

This sounds an awful lot like death. In fact, it’s even more death-y than conventional death where, after the body’s processes have stopped, the body slowly decomposes. The effect is the same—the pieces of you come apart—the transporter’s just a lot more efficient at it.

Once the matter stream arrives at its destination, the person is somehow “rematerialized” or put back together. While the transporter tends to use the person’s atoms to reconstruct a human, it really doesn’t have to. The machine could use totally different atoms, and the effect would be exactly the same.

So does the transporter actually send those atoms to a new place, or does it send the data to make a copy of you? Does it really matter, since our bodies are always replacing our own atoms as we go about our everyday lives? Ars Technica take a deeper and more philosophical look into the workings of a Star Trek transporter. -via Metafilter


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