The Star Trek Transporter: Too Easy?

The Transporter has been a fixture of the Star Trek universe since the first series in it, The Original Series (TOS) of 1966-69. It is a teleportation or matter-transmission device that can both transmit and receive without needing anything at the other end.

As he relates in his book The Trouble With Tribbles, author David Gerrold first saw Star Trek, he refused to believe that its Transporter was possible, because long-distance teleportation needs both a transmitter device and a receiver device. He later conceded that nobody really knows whether or not long-distance teleportation was feasible without a device at each end.

DG went on to write the eponymous ST:TOS episode for that book, an episode that featured cute fuzzy “tribbles” that multiply uncontrollably and make themselves a nuisance. He also went on to wrote The World of Star Trek, where he very strongly criticized several of TOS’s problems, including the Transporter.

It was added to the series because its special effects for it were much cheaper than the special effects for the alternatives. These were (1) an aircraft-carrier-sized interstellar spaceship landing and taking off, and (2) an RV-sized shuttlecraft departing from the spaceship, landing, taking off, and arriving again.

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The Most Famous Negative Result

In my previous entry, I had discussed how research in the harder sciences tends to get more negative results than research in the softer sciences. Here, I will discuss what is one of the most famous negative results of all of the history of science, if not the most famous.

The Michelson-Morley experiment.

To understand why it is so important, consider that by the late nineteenth century, two enormously successful physical paradigms had emerged. The first was Newtonian mechanics, encompassing Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, his law of gravity, and some related theories. It successfully accounted for the motions of the larger bodies in the Solar System, even enabling the discovery of a planet: Neptune. The second was electricity, magnetism, light, and their interactions, collectively electromagnetism. They were successfully unified by the work of James Clerk Maxwell, working from a lot of previous work on electric and magnetic fields and their sources and interrelationships.

But these two paradigms could not be reconciled.

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Science: Hard vs. Soft

For nearly 200 years, many people have long had an intuitive sense of a hierarchy of the sciences, from “hard”, well-established, rigorous, and precise, to “soft”, the opposite.

  • Physical sciences: hard
  • Biological sciences: medium
  • Social sciences: soft

This intuition is supported by a wide range of assessments and measurements, and a recent one is in PLOS ONE: “Positive” Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences, with greater softness meaning more positive reported results.

Controlling for observed differences between pure and applied disciplines, and between papers testing one or several hypotheses, the odds of reporting a positive result were around 5 times higher among papers in the disciplines of Psychology and Psychiatry and Economics and Business compared to Space Science, 2.3 times higher in the domain of social sciences compared to the physical sciences, and 3.4 times higher in studies applying behavioural and social methodologies on people compared to physical and chemical studies on non-biological material. In all comparisons, biological studies had intermediate values.

Author Daniele Fanelli continues in his paper,

… in some fields of research (which we will henceforth indicate as “harder”) data and theories speak more for themselves, whereas in other fields (the “softer”) sociological and psychological factors – for example, scientists’ prestige within the community, their political beliefs, their aesthetic preferences, and all other non-cognitive factors – play a greater role in all decisions made in research, from which hypothesis should be tested to how data should be collected, analyzed, interpreted and compared to previous studies.

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Time-Period Punk Genres

The inspiration for them was cyberpunk, a genre about people who live on the borderline of reputable society but who use that society’s advanced technology: “High tech. Low life. ” What is Cyberpunk? | Neon Dystopia defines it:

Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future.  On one side you have powerful mega-corporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs, and vice.  In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval.

Cyberpunk – Wikipedia quotes Lawrence Person’s definition:

Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.

It inspired steampunk, and that in turn inspired lots of other timepunks or periodpunks. These may be viewed as high-tech mundane fiction or hard science fiction set in the appropriate periods.

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Science Fiction: Hard to Soft

First. what is science fiction? This has been a contentious issue for nearly a century. Definitions of science fiction – Wikipedia lists numerous proposed definitions. science fiction – Wiktionary has a very simple one: “Fiction in which advanced technology or science is a key element.” In What Science-Fiction Magazines Look For | NexusZine I mentioned Analog magazine’s preferences: stories where future science and/or technology is an essential part. If it was absent, there would be no story. Nevertheless, science fiction is not just about technology. It’s also about what people do with it: Isaac Asimov on Science Fiction: the Reaction, not the Action | NexusZine. Like if self-driving cars became practical, what happens to manual driving? Isaac Asimov once wrote a story, “Sally”, in which it was outlawed as needlessly dangerous, a move that caused a lot of controversy.

Within science fiction itself, there are two axes that have been called hard to soft:

  1. Nuts-and-bolts to sociological
  2. Present-day technology to plausible future technology to implausible future technology to fantasy

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Go back to where you came from?

Some years ago, someone posted a video in YouTube showing a woman in a tram in Britain yelling at some immigrants to go back to where they came from. (Tram = light-rail vehicle) That video is now gone, but it gave me some ideas. Based on it, I have come up with a summary of the history of Great Britain:

  • 1066 CE: Those Normans should go back to where they came from!
  • 800 CE: Those Danes should go back to where they came from!
  • 450 CE: Those Angles and Saxons and Jutes should go back to where they came from!
  • 43 CE: Those Romans should go back to where they came from!
  • 500 BCE: Those Celts should go back to where they came from!
  • 2700 BCE: Those Beaker people should go back to where they came from!
  • 4000 BCE: Those farmers should go back to where they came from!


Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

In his youth, Isaac Asimov became annoyed by stories of robots that destroy their creators, with the implication that construction of such machines is something that we were not meant to do. So when he started writing stories about robots, he decided that they would need safety mechanisms that keep such things from happening. He eventually stated them as his Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

“Robot” here can be generalized to be any artificially-intelligent system: replace “robot” with “AI system”. In their explicit form, one will likely need strong AI to implement them, and present-day robots are far too dumb for that. They are mostly industrial mechanical arms and the like. There are also lots of ambiguities and loopholes in these laws, and IA himself had gotten lots of stories out of problems in applying them.

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