TOTALLY GEEKY TECH TALK: Star Trek — The Working of The Heisenberg Compensator: or just how big a geek am I?

Werner Heisenberg

Image via Wikipedia

In Brief:

The Transporter device is as central a character to the Star Trek series as Spock, Kirk, Picard or Data.  More so, in fact, since it occurs in every series and movie in the whole franchise. For some time, however, there was one (well more than one… but we’re just covering one here) key problem with its functioning: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal. This rule of real world physics states that one cannot exactly determine both the position and velocity of a subatomic particle.  It was elegantly overcome by the series creators by introducing the Heisenberg Compensator into on-screen discussions of the Transporter device.  When asked how this worked, Trek art supervisor Michael Hideo Okuda, famously responded, “They work just fine thank you.”

But for me, who spent a lifetime studying how to measure and record, this answer just wasn’t good enough.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, some mechanism was engaged and kept the problem in mind until one day it came to me fully formed.  A simple solution that relied on one of those other staple of the Star Trek Universe… the Tachyon!


Real World:

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg established the Uncertainty Principle which states that one cannot both know the exact location of a sub-atomic particle and its exact velocity at the same time.  One can know for certain either one or the other, but not both, or one can have a good idea about both, but the degree of accuracy measuring one will have a corresponding decrease in the ability to measure the other.  This means that the scanning device used in transporters cannot work the way they are described doing without a Compensator.

Tachyons are hypothetical subatomic particles travelling faster than the speed of light.  Using a Star Trek based interpretation of Einsteinian physics, these particles should therefore be moving backwards in time. 

Star Trek:

In order to combat the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Star Trek invented the Heisenberg Compensator.  The Star Trek Encyclopedia notes that this is used to overcome this problem but does not say how it works (in fact, says that they have no idea how it works).

Tachyons are frequently used throughout the Next Generation (TNG), being detected, projected in beams, etc.

The Solution:

It’s very simple, actually…

  1. The Heisenberg Compensator uses the Location Sensor to measure the exact location of a sub-atomic particle, paying no attention to its velocity.
  2. Heisenberg Compensator also uses a Tachyon detector to measure the incoming Tachyon Particles, which are travelling backwards in time.
  3. By examining the paths of the tachyon particles coming in a different velocities, one can determine how they are being effected by particles that exist in the future, and to that end, allows one to determine where the sub-atomic particle that one is about to transport is going to be. 
  4. This allows the Heisenberg Compensator to interpolate the velocity of the particle by knowing where it is, where it was and where it will be.
  5. A second scan using the Location Sensor measures the precise location again, thus allowing one to know the precise location and precise velocity.

Indeed, this method explains why certain transports go wrong and send one in parallel universes and the like when great big magnetic storms and the like occur.   The impact of the storms on the tachyon particles, and the possible bleeding of tachyons from alternative futures creates a problem with the algorithms used to interpolate the velocity and thus put the target into the wrong universe.

Okay. Now I’ve finally said it, I feel much better.   


About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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12 Responses to TOTALLY GEEKY TECH TALK: Star Trek — The Working of The Heisenberg Compensator: or just how big a geek am I?

  1. Ang says:

    Oh man… you really are a geek.

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    Fun! I love the “science” behind star trek! It’s a hoot!

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    Nope, I shall take a look…

  4. Scott says:

    Not to be picky, but the whole point behind the Uncertainty Principle is the decoupling of position vs momentum. Hence any measurement of position must by definition impact upon momentum. This problem is magnified in your solution, as the very act of measuring a particles location (or momentum) would inevitably alter its ‘future’ (and note here that if we are really discussing a metrical frame anything like whta Einstein had in mind, ‘future’ is merely a point in four-space) position as well, thus changing the quantum state of the tachyons.

    Without all the doubletalk, what I am trying to say is that your Heisenberg Compensator merely creates a different set of distortions…

    Of course I know that it is wrong to pick at the metaphor…it leaves a nasty scab

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Actually, it is the resulting distortions that arekey to making it work in the Star Trek universe. First, somewhat ignoring Einstein, which is key to Star Trek, and secondly, using the tachyons to measure the future position is what goes wrong with most of the transporter malfunctions (I cann ge’ a lock Cap’n). So, assuming that we are using the Star Trek logic for causality (whose logic would make any Vulcan’s mind explode), the tachyon sensors in the compensator essentially show where the particle will be after the position measurements are taken, if you didn’t take the measurements, the tachyons would not have been there in the first place. The act of making the measurement of both is what ensures the interpolation is correct.

      Making certain that you are measuring the tachyons coming in from the correct timeline, however, is where the biggest problem lies. When there is a magnetic/ion/subspace/magic… storm/interference/ disruption/spell etc, either the interpolation does not work (causing total failure and a gooey end for the transportee), or the tachyons being measured are coming in from an alternate time line. THis sends one to an alternate time line, or creates a quantum division of self, resulting in two totally seperate alternate selves to be materialized, each incapable of existing for long. I have suspisions about how that works based on the mitochondrial membranes, but I haven’t run that by the resident expert in the field.

      • Scott says:

        The catch is that once you introduce the concept of an interpolation, you have thrown the whole ‘position with any degree of accuracy’ thing out the window. If you know where a particle is, but not where it is going (i.e. position, but no momentum) you still don’t really know much of anything. Consider the tunnel diode, or the phenomenon of quantum tunneling that we encounter with microchips. Without a specific set of values for both position and momentum (think of it as four sets of dimensional parameters, though it is more complex than that in reality), you don’t have any real certainty that what you are transporting is going to be reinstantiated in anything even remotely like the condition under which it was scanned in the first place. Hence a man standing next to a table might end up part man, part table. The very use of a ‘location scan’ alters the properties of momentum…no real way to avoid that, which is precisely what Heisenberg was saying.

        Now, with that in mind, how about the concept of Quantum memory as a different solution to the problem? Hard to imagine how it could work on a macro scale, but still….I do love entangled particles…

  5. Thomas Evans says:

    Ah… reading up on the Nature paper, I see what your on about. If they are correct, then yes, Quantum Memory neatly does away with the issues of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and avoids any element of interpolocation, doesn’t it?

    For those who can’t be bothered to look up the paper, what it basically notes is that if two particles are entagled and you meature the position of one and the velocity of the other, you can effectly measure the complete state of each.

    As for it working on a macro-scale, since the transporter is noted scanning things on a “quantum level,” scanning the position and direction of all the target’s component subatomic particles. So in a sense, it doesn’t have to work on a macro-level… it only has to have a tremendous computer to calculate how they all interact with one another. Krauss talks about how much storage space you would need to record that data, but calculating the entanglement of a whole object… that’s gotta
    eat up the RAM!
    Still, it doesn’t use tachyons…. heavy sigh,.

  6. Pingback: The Science Behind InnerSpace | PolyKnight Games

  7. Greg says:

    Strange coincidence, I just found this : – it appears that Physicists have already found a way around Heisenberg’s measurement problem. In this case truth seems stranger than fiction . . . .

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