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Physicist: Does Captain Kirk Die Going Through the Transporter?

The problem has kept her up at night for decades, she says, and it appears we are no closer to an answer

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder is genuinely puzzled and asks readers for possible solutions:

Does Captain Kirk die when he goes through the transporter? This question has kept me up at night for decades. I’m not kidding. And I still don’t have an answer. So this video isn’t going to answer the question, but I will explain why it’s more difficult than you may think.

Sabine Hossenfelder, “Does Captain Kirk die when he goes through the transporter?” at BackRe(Action) (October 23, 2021)

Why so difficult?

Assume that all the information about a person is contained in the exact configuration in which it appears at one moment in time. Hossenfelder accepts that as the correct view. So the transporter converts you into a different medium, putting all your life processes on pause. But then what? She notes that “strictly speaking, the only way to copy a system elsewhere would require you to also reproduce its entire past, which isn’t possible.”

But there’s another reason you might not be able to read out the information of a person without annihilating them in that process, namely that quantum mechanics says that this isn’t possible. You just can’t copy an arbitrary quantum state exactly.

Sabine Hossenfelder, “Does Captain Kirk die when he goes through the transporter?” at BackRe(Action) (October 23, 2021)
The Star Trek transporter episode from 1970

In a multiverse, she notes, an infinite number of transporters may produce an infinite number of Captain Kirks, some of which may be exact replicas. That’s if a multiverse exists. Otherwise,

There are various ways people have tried to make sense of this conundrum. The most common one is abandoning our intuitive idea of what it means to be yourself. We have this idea that our experience is continuous and if you go into the transporter there has to be an answer to what you experience next. Do you find yourself elsewhere? Or is that the end of your story and someone else finds themselves elsewhere? It seems that there has to be a difference between these two cases. But if there is no observable difference, then this just means we’re wrong in thinking that being yourself is continuous to begin with.

Sabine Hossenfelder, “Does Captain Kirk die when he goes through the transporter?” at BackRe(Action) (October 23, 2021)

She notes that philosophers are evenly divided on the question of whether Kirk lives, dies, or “other.”

When she asked her readers for comments — where fellow physicists might be expected to comment before their peers — there were none to date at the blog as of November 13, 2021. There were 5500 comments at the YouTube site, only some of which were on topic.

This problem may affect the likelihood that transporters will ever be a viable technology.

As it happens, the original Trekkers were, as so often, ahead of us in “The Enemy Within” (aired April 13, 1970). Here’s a snippet:

A transporter malfunction splits Captain Kirk into two halves: one meek and indecisive, the other violent and ill tempered. The remaining crew members stranded on the planet cannot be beamed up to the ship until a problem is fixed. IMDB

Highlights of William Shatner’s acting in the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within”. Captain Kirk has to cope with a transporter malfunction that creates an evil version of himself. Shatner demonstrates the ability to portray an evil and a good person as the same time. Very emotional episode. At YouTube

You may also wish to read: Theoretical physicist: Colonizing Mars is a ridiculous idea! Making Mars habitable (terraforming) has been kicking around engineering circles for decades. What are the chances, given Moore’s Law-level increases in technology? Sabine Hossenfelder points out that the Mars’ biggest habitability problem is lack of a magnetic field and no plausible technology solution is in sight.

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Physicist: Does Captain Kirk Die Going Through the Transporter?