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!
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.
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.
It’s very simple, actually…
- The Heisenberg Compensator uses the Location Sensor to measure the exact location of a sub-atomic particle, paying no attention to its velocity.
- Heisenberg Compensator also uses a Tachyon detector to measure the incoming Tachyon Particles, which are travelling backwards in time.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.