As we dined – peanut butter and jelly I think it was – we discussed the merits of a free market economy.
“We should be living like the Jetsons,” he said. What a novel way of thinking about it. But soon he went too far.
“Like teleportation. I’m so angry we can’t teleport right now.”
I had to interject. Free market or no, no matter can travel at the speed of light, and as matter approaches the speed of light, its mass approaches infinity. So instantaneous or even near-instantaneous travel across vast distances is just physically impossible, even without government regulation intruding on naturally occurring human innovation.
And yet – imagine we built walk-in devices all over the world, integrated and designed much like telephone booths. When a person enters the device, it scans the body and records its exact molecular make-up. This information is stored as data, then sent near-instantaneously to any device in the world, across any wireless data-transfer network. The receiving device then pools molecules from its immediate atmosphere to recreate the teleporting-person, based on the transferred data.
Promising. And, I noted, there was no compelling reason that the original person should disappear; instead, said person would now literally be in two places at once.
“Then it’s really a cloning device,” he said.
“It’s a cloning and teleportation device. Two birds with one stone dude – that’s what the free market’s all about.” I was getting pretty excited.
We discussed design details. For example: would every molecule necessary to recreate a human be found within every device’s immediate atmosphere? Probably not – every device would have to come pre-equipped with a back-up molecule bank. It would carry any molecules found in the human body that are not uniformly abundant in the Earth’s atmosphere. Which these might be we did not know, but quick research could easily reveal. What if we found there were too many to store enough of all of them? We might abandon the molecule bank for an element bank, so that the device constructs any necessary molecules on the spot. Volatile chemical reactions might then pose a problem, but these were details – design kinks easily overcome through a combination of creativity and enterprise.
He highlighted one potential application: our device erases the need to ever physically deploy ground troops on an enemy state. Instead, troops could be clone-teleported over – this way, any casualties would still have corresponding selves alive back home.
Yet this troubled me. It’s one of those ethical questions that always pops up with cloning: to what extent is a clone “expendable”? Conscious, and fully equipped with that miracle that is human agency, what can one say but that a clone’s life is every bit as precious as that of his original self? The death in combat of a cloned enlistee is no less the tragedy than that of a traditionally constructed one.
We quickly stumbled upon a solution. If we could direct our device to pick and choose which molecules from the atmosphere to use for the recreation of the teleporting human – in other words, to pick not just the nearest carbon molecule, for instance, but a specifically identified carbon molecule – then it could use the molecules that make up the enemy population to recreate the teleportees. The very act of recreating our troops would involve dematerializing the enemy population, leaving no enemy left to fight.
So the night progressed. Obstacles presented themselves, only to be obliterated by the sheer force of our ingenuity. For example, I asked: how could we install our devices within an enemy state without facing retaliation?
“Intelligence operatives can build them in unpopulated locations, like the jungles.”
“Well, yes, but then the enemy population would lie outside the device’s immediate atmosphere. It couldn’t use enemy molecules to recreate our troops.”
“Design them to be able to pick out molecules over long distances,” he said.
“I really don’t see that becoming technologically feasible within our lifetimes,” I retorted. He conceded my point. An obvious one, really – I struggled not to laugh at his naïveté. After all, if our devices could pick out and manipulate molecules over arbitrarily long distances, why couldn’t we simply carry out the entire operation from the home country, without ever setting foot on enemy territory? If only combat were so simple.
The actual solution to the problem was no less obvious. First, we set up a few devices secretly in the jungle. Teleport/clone a few ground troops over, along with a large number of additional devices. These troops then carry the devices to areas populated by enemy civilians, and in a perfectly timed and coordinated operation, we teleport the remaining troops, enough to necessitate the dematerialization of the entire enemy population.
But we’d have to make sure they don’t acquire the technology before we dematerialize them. We could get dematerialized!
This was a serious issue. How to avoid a teleportation device race between nations? This one took a while, but when the answer came, it’s overwhelming simplicity was such that I began to sense a sort of high in me, an exaltation at the limitlessness of our brilliance that was not unlike an artificially altered state of mind.
Presumably, we’re at war with an enemy state because there are certain terms we’d like accepted. So, just before dematerializing them, our devices scan the enemy’s molecular make-up, and store the information. We leave a handful of key enemy officials alive, and offer them the re-materializing of their population, in exchange for the acceptance of our terms. When inevitably they accept, we re-materialize their citizenry as agreed, but with one small modification: our devices alter the molecular structure of the re-materialized population so as to remove their ability to ever learn how to make a teleportation device! This not only solves the problem of the potential device-race, but also the controversial issue of genocide, an evil avoided if possible, I think we’d all agree.
We narrowed our focus. Just how would a teleportation device work? It would seem to involve three basic operations – the scanning of molecular make-ups to save as data, the transfer of data across large distances, and the identification and manipulation of molecules from the immediate atmosphere. Data transfer is, of course, already a readily available service.
What of the scanning phase? At the level of detail our device requires, would Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle not pose an unsurmountable obstacle?
Heisenberg’s principle, for its mystifying name, is really a very simple concept. In order to observe the position and momentum of a particle, some form of energy must be exerted on it. This energy instantly affects these properties, so that it turns out to be impossible to observe them without changing them.
He and I looked at each other; the answer had hit us simultaneously. Couldn’t one calculate the change that the observing energy would have on the particle, and take it into account? One need merely observe, and subtract the change accounted for by the observing energy, and be left with the “original” state of the particle. As one observes, continue to account for the change caused by the observing energy, in order to predict how the particle’s state will continue to change.
We were dumbstruck, almost catatonic. The solution to Heisenberg’s limiting principle was so obvious; yet no one had thought of it before? Could this really be? We dove into research – using his older brother’s Tufts University library card ID, we accessed all varieties of physics journals, read primary and secondary documents, self-taught higher-level math as we encountered it. And yet nowhere did we find anyone who’d made our conceptual discovery, or any compelling reason to believe it would not work.
There was an explanation, of course: for the last half-century at least, theoretical physics research has been funded by, whom else, the federal government. In an instant, as if my neurons fired at the speed of light, I saw the history of our species, a story of men yearning to reach as far as their eyes could see, to then extend the domain of their sight – only to be limited by the ever-present hand of the matriarchal government. Always there, ready to help, to sweep aside the obstacles; what had our discovery of teleportation made more clear than that it is our obstacles which inspire us to soar?
From nothing, in a slow crescendo, the majestic strains, the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth penetrated my awareness, appearing as if on cue from within. I could discern every instrument, not just every section, but every individual violin, cello, clarinet; every percussive stroke as it invaded the unsuspecting melody as an enterprising man does the status quo; and simultaneously, without alternating my focus, I heard the whole, the glorious, life-affirming whole. The unfathomable clarity of a Beethoven vortex where all levels cross. I felt that I would levitate, but then, of course I would levitate – in a world where teleportation/cloning is only the beginning, in a free-market world, levitation is but child’s play. At the peak of my experience, the image of a future by infinite progress before me, his earlier statement echoed in all its profundity: we really should be living like the Jetsons.
Within minutes, we’d finished proofreading our paper disproving Heisenberg’s thesis – thesis, for it was only government-subsidized blindness that had called it a principle. We had only one more operation to consider – how our device would identify and manipulate molecules around it – then our design would be complete. Then on to the next great discovery of course, on to a future created in our image.
But how would it manipulate molecules around it? How to identify a molecule and then, simply, just like that, move it?
An idea hit me – not a very well formed one, but I expressed it. Why limit ourselves to a molecule bank, or an element bank? Our device could have a particle bank, and the ability to structure particles in such a way so as to electrically attract only the desired molecules from the atmosphere. The built-in particle-structure could be positioned in exactly the right place so as to attract the identified molecules at exactly the correct angle, and with the required speed, to glide them into their place in the recreated human in-progress.
Humbly, he pointed out that this could never work – any particle-structure would invariably attract and repel all kinds of molecules from the atmosphere. To precisely predict the exact speed and direction of all the resulting attractions and repulsions, and to steer them so as to yield as complex a molecular structure as that of an entire human, all calculated by our device on the spot based on its atmosphere’s current molecular make-up – well, this could mathematically be proven to require prior knowledge of the state of every particle in the Universe.
In retrospect, it was a silly idea. I felt a hint of shame – we should be past this level of thought by now. I remembered how earlier I’d wanted to laugh at him for an idea that was hardly less mature than this one. I felt guilt at my earlier arrogance.
As I pondered our apparent inability to solve this last obstacle, a light bulb over us flickered. We inspected it. It was not loose and it did not flicker again.
A doubt came over me. I had no idea why the bulb had flickered; not so much as a hypothesis. The doubt attained self-awareness, and incorporated our earlier excitement’s inertia, to become a panic.
I resolved to break the question down, sensing that solving the light bulb’s mystery must yield a return to the recently departed joy. Why had the bulb flickered? No, it wasn’t the bulb that had flickered, but its light. Why had the light flickered? To answer this, for my question to even have meaning, would I not need to know what the light was? Was it a particle-beam or a wave? Our readings suggested it was both – yet the two seem mutually exclusive, contradictory.
The panic swelled, attained agency as a self-sustaining loop that fed off the recognition of its own growth. All varieties of doubt introduced themselves, all pointed to the possibility: was every conclusion of the night a fantasy? Could it be that no one had discovered our solution to Heisenberg because it was, in fact, childishly ridiculous? We were merely teenagers after all, until tonight largely uneducated in physics outside of key wikipedia pages; just immature nerds fantasizing about teleportation devices to avoid work on our project for Health and Hygiene class.
Out of visual noise, familiar faces formed in the membrane between my sight and the world. The great limiters: Heisenberg, Gödel, Derrida, laughing at me. Looming over them, containing them, their patron saint, was Freud. Freud looked into me, and I remembered.
I was maybe four days old and suckling contentedly on the precious teat. There was no thought, no language, no joy or pain – only rightness, a being one with the world as it was. Then she took it away, and I cried.
Freud looked into me, and I understood: this memory has been my life. Every action, every desire – the conceptualizing of the teleportation device, the unusual interest in Beethoven for a boy my age, indeed, my eating this very peanut butter and jelly sandwich – all manifestations of the two Contradictory Desires: to punish my mother for removing the teat, and to please her, to earn it back.
Now, the instant’s passed, and all I have left are these words.
As the doubt swells, one certainty remains: there is no certainty. As clear as the solution to Heisenberg had seemed, so now how clear that limitless human innovation is but a myth. How clear man’s fickleness, his arbitrariness, and how absurd an economic system which would leave him to his own devices, free to destroy himself and those around him on any weakly whim.
No. What man needs is an outside force. Perhaps a force like Rousseau’s great Legislator to guide and direct his passions. A social engineer, willing and able to balance the wills of the teat-seekers. A man perhaps, just perhaps – perhaps I say, for who am I to know – but perhaps, a man like Barack Hussein Obama.
NEXT: 4. Right in Two