The world imagined in "Star Trek" has its share of sensational technologies, including warp drives, transporters, universal translators, phasers and holodecks. Perhaps the most improbable technology of them all, however, is the replicator, a device capable of instantly materializing almost any object imaginable with the simple push of a button (or, as is often the case, via voice command).
Imagine being able to generate a perfectly cooked steak and lobster dinner on a whim — without having to first track down an actual lobster or steer. Or imagine if you suddenly desired a new phone, or television, or chair, or anything else you can dream up, and you could produce one instantly, seemingly out of thin air. Needless to say, this technology would be about as close to magic as it gets. It would be a miracle machine.
Well, believe it or not, scientists are currently working on a technology that could eventually lead to real-life replicators, reports The Conversation.
How is such a technology even theoretically possible? It all comes down to Einstein's famous equation, perhaps the most famous equation in the history of physics: E=mc2.
This equation essentially tells us that matter is just another form of energy, and that mass and energy can be converted from one to the other. This makes replicator technology at least conceivable for the following reason: It means that any material object could both be broken down into pure energy or created out of pure energy.
The idea of being able to materialize any object "out of thin air," as the metaphor suggests, is a bit tougher to wrap one's mind around. First, understand that quantum mechanics tells us that there is not really such a thing as empty space. Even in a vacuum, ultra-tiny particles can be found constantly coming into existence for extremely short periods of time. Although these particles are quickly annihilated when they collide with a corresponding anti-particle made from antimatter, they nevertheless exist ... and in the moment when they do exist they seemingly emerge "out of thin air."
Now imagine if you had a super-intense laser (which shot pure electromagnetic energy) that was strong enough to rip these tiny particles away from their anti-particles so that they didn't collide. If they don't collide, then they won't get annihilated. So in other words, such a laser would make it possible to end up with real particles with mass just by shooting your laser (pure energy) into a void region of space.
And it just so happens that such a laser is in the works. A major European project is now building the most powerful laser ever generated, known as the Extreme Light Infrastructure, or ELI. This laser will be able to provide beams with a power of 10 PW (or 10,000,000,000,000,000 watts), which is orders of magnitude (10 times, to be exact) more powerful than any existing laser facilities.
More importantly, ELI should be strong enough to produce particles out of a vacuum. While generating a handful of particles is a long way from generating a convincing steak and lobster dinner, the technology at least makes "Star Trek"-like replicators conceivable as a real-life possibility. They can no longer be dismissed merely as a convenient fiction for sci-fi writers. That's kind of exciting, if not downright mind-bending.
As Arthur C. Clarke once famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Should practical replicators ever be invented, there might be no other technology that better justifies such a claim.
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