The Scoop on the Uncertainty Principle

In all the episodes of the original “Star Trek” series, not once did Captain Kirk actually use the words: “Beam me up, Scotty!” It might be interesting to examine not only why he never said this, but also why he never could have said it.

Although it is not completely obvious, when we examine something, we really are interpreting the pattern of reflected photons from the object as they fall on the retina of each eye. The process is incredibly complicated so much so, in fact, that computer scientists have not yet learned how to program even a supercomputer to simulate this with any accuracy or fidelity.

Take a wall, for example. Photons from the sun, which is our light source, reflect “bounce” off the wall and fall on our retinas, so that we perceive an image of the wall. If we mentally substitute tennis balls for photons, we can build a mental picture of what is happening. A tennis serving gun that shoots balls at the wall will be our “light” source. By appropriately aiming the gun and observing which balls bounce back and which don’t, and also by observing the pattern of the returning balls, we can quite accurately measure the size, distance, and even other gross characteristics of the wall.

Picture a raised pattern on the wall face consisting of components smaller than the tennis balls. By observing the ball dispersal pattern, we can deduce that there is some kind of raised pattern on the wall, but will be unable to determine any of its details.

This analogy is not perfect, because photons act in strange ways, depending on how they are being used and interpreted. Sometimes they act as waves instead of particles, and this confuses things, but for this discussion we will keep just to the particle character of photons.

If we substitute something smaller for the tennis balls marble-sized balls, for example then we can reexamine the wall, deducing its finer details. It may also become necessary to fire the balls with more energy in order to get them to bounce back with appropriate information. As the smaller balls hit the raised pattern elements on the wall, how they bounce back will give us much more detailed information about this pattern than we could surmise from the larger tennis balls. Continuing the analogy, as the detail we wish to examine gets smaller, we use ever smaller, more energetic balls to conduct the examination. Eventually, the balls we fire at the wall begin to damage the very structure we are attempting to examine, as the BBs chip away at the plaster designs.

The point here is that no matter what we wish to examine, and no matter what we choose as our examining particle, sooner or later one of two things will always happen. Either the particle is too large to do the job anymore, or the particle is too energetic, so that it disturbs, or even worse, destroys whatever is being examined.

Much that we wish to examine is on the atomic or even subatomic scale. Photons quickly become useless. Electrons work for a while, but they soon also become useless. In fact, sooner or later, all known particles become useless as observing devices. Eventually, when you use an appropriate particle to determine the specific location of another particle, you so completely disrupt the motion of that particle that you have absolutely no idea when it was there (its “momentum”). Conversely, if you use an appropriate particle to determine the exact momentum of another particle, then you lose all information about its location.

Werner Heisenberg was the first scientist to quantify this information into what is now commonly known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In effect, the exact simultaneous position and momentum of any specific atomic or subatomic particle is forever unavailable. It’s just part of how our universe is.

Now back to Kirk and Scotty.

For the transporter to work, it must measure the exact position and momentum of every single atom in the object to be transported, so it can transmit that information to the receiving site for reconstruction. It must make a precise template, and as we have seen that is forever impossible.

And that’s the real reason why Kirk never said it, because Scotty can’t do it!