The inconvenient science of science fiction

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside,...

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside, Iowa, reading “Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk March 22, 2228”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

150 years ago, Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon. 5 years later, he wrote about a powered submarine. Arthur C Clark wrote about GPS long before it ever became a reality. Captain Kirk used communicators to get Scotty to beam him up. Spot the odd one out.

Well, we’ve been to the moon and we have countless submarines creeping around the world packed with missiles waiting to unleash Armageddon. Most people have GPS in their smartphones which they also use as portable wireless communication devices. All of these things that were dreamed up in the realm of science fiction have since become true. Unfortunately, transporter beams have yet to be invented. We’re not even close.

In some Star Trek episodes, they talk about how transporters work. They transfer the subject’s substance or matter into energy, send it to another place and then turn the energy back into matter arranged according to the pattern. When something goes wrong, they “pull back” the subject to their starting point, only sometimes, they don’t make it. It all sounds terrifying and I certainly wouldn’t be keen on trying out early prototypes.

But how likely are they to happen?  I once asked a hulking great Jamaican barman on a cruise ship whether the crew ate the same food as the passengers. With a deep-throated roar of laughter, he told me “same meat, same fish, same vegetables – different chef, different recipe”. In other words, just transferring matter is not enough, the pattern in which that matter is arranged is crucial.

We have a pattern for the human body. Twelve years ago the first draft of the human genome was published. Our DNA is incredibly complicated with 25,000 genes and 3 billion chemical base pairs arranged in a double helix. In a recent update, scientists announced that what they previously thought was junk DNA is actually crucial to the make up of the human body.

A tiny unwanted accidental change in the pattern could be enough to render the subject blind, deaf or worse. It would seem to be a pre-requisite that this work is completely finished before transporter technology could be feasible for transmitting humans. But what about simpler matter? Using something I don’t claim to understand called quantum entanglement, scientists in Copenhagen have transported  matter 18 inches. Physicists in the Canary Islands have used the same trick to transmit small payloads over 89 miles.

Scientists admit that the same trick won’t work for humans, so something fundamentally different will need to be discovered to make transporters viable. Looks like we will be stuck with planes, trains and automobiles for a while yet.

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