Captain Kirk is in serious trouble, and he needs Scotty to beam him up, disassembling him atom by atom and then putting him back together again. Sadly, this is impossible. A guy named Warner Heisenberg figured out a long time ago that you can’t get all the information you need about Captain Kirk’s atoms to put them back together in the right order.
Heisenberg’s theory originally talked only about electrons, but it can apply to any subatomic particle. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that you cannot measure a particle’s exact position AND momentum. The act of measuring one would change the other. Even the most delicate touch by a beam of light or any other method of detection would change something about your particle, making your measurements useless (at least for beaming anybody up).
The only option, then, is to rely on probability to get something close to a correct answer. Einstein never liked this idea. He wanted certainty, not probability, in our universe, and he used every argument he could think of to show that somehow, with better technology, we could solve this problem and save Captain Kirk’s life. But Heisenberg and his friends had a counterargument for everything Einstein said (Clark, 415-420).
I suppose once you’ve measured an electron’s position, there are a limited number of momentums it could have, and some of those momentums might be more likely than others, but there’s still a lot of guesswork for Scotty to do. It’s a good thing the writers of Star Trek gave him those Heisenberg Compensators (Krauss, 80-81).
I don’t have any specific plans to use the Uncertainty Principle in my stories, but I’m glad I’m aware of it. For one thing, I’m going to be very careful about taking anyone apart atom by atom. If Einstein is right and there is a way around Heisenberg, it will require physics well beyond current human understanding. I’ll tell you the other reason in my next post: it involves one of the most beautiful and profound things I’ve ever read in a science fiction book.
Cassidy, David C. “Heisenberg, Uncertainty and the Quantum Revolution.” Scientific American May 1992. Pages 106-112.
Clark, Ronald W. Einstein: The Life and Times. NY: Harper Collins, 1971.
Krauss, Lawrence M. The Physics of Star Trek. NY: Harper Collins, 1995.
“Probability.” Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia Eighth Edition. Ed. Douglas M. Considine. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1995. Pages 2547-2548.
“Quantum Mechanics.” Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia Eighth Edition. Ed. Douglas M. Considine. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1995. Pages 2601-2603.
“Uncertainty Principle.” Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia Eighth Edition. Ed. Douglas M. Considine. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1995. Page 3171.