Beam Me Up, Scotty

Where's Captain Kirk?I’m disturbed by the Star Trek transporter. The way I think it’s supposed to work is that the person or object is converted into energy, which is then “beamed” to a remote location, and turned back into the original form. They can get away without explaining every particular in Star Trek, but presumably, the process involves recording every atom in your body in perfect detail before converting it to pure energy.

Actually, “perfect” detail is impossible, as far as we know, due to Heisenberg’s Principle, but “sufficient” detail wouldn’t contravene any known science. The well-known physicist Professor Michio Kaku (who admittedly is a bit of a nut) thinks that invention of a real transporter might be achievable within the next 100 years.

The thing that worries me is that being entirely converted into energy counts as “death” in most circumstances. I mean, you’re not really being “transported” anywhere, are you? You’re being destroyed, and a perfect copy assembled at the other end. The copy will think that it’s you, since it will have all your thoughts and memories up until the point when the funny transporter noise is at its peak, but it is a copy.

Here's Captain Kirk?And what if you made two copies? It would be easy enough to get the energy just by converting the same mass of matter as the subject. Anything would do: a few bags of potatoes, say. (Space potatoes, obviously.) Actually, they’ve done it a few times in the various Star Trek series, including one where one copy of Captain Kirk was Good and one was Evil. There’s no real scientific explanation for that development.

But it’s not just a fictional machine that’s got me thinking. (Sorry, Star Trek isn’t real. I thought you should know.) Right now, I have all the thoughts and memories possessed by the entity “me” a second ago. But I have no way of telling for certain that I am that being. I suppose there’s a certain continuity of matter across the seconds, but not over longer periods. Give it a few years, and every cell in my body will have died and been replaced. The new ones will be made from the atoms in the food that I’ve ingested, so I really will be the copy that’s made from the potatoes. And pizza.

But will I still be me?


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