Premise - A technological device of unknown origin is found by modern day humans. by messing with its controls, it's discovered that its function appears to create some kind of anomaly such as a traversable wormhole. However, this shouldn't be possible and it breaks our modern day understanding of physics.

Assumption - the materials used in the device do not use any kind of exotic matter or absurd energy requirements. It should be assumed that the device could be recreated using currently available materials to modern human society.

However, on a scale of easy to impossible, could people duplicate this device without fully understanding 'how' it accomplishes its end function or the unknown physics involved? (I.E. copy its internal components and put them together to create another functioning device like following a user manual).

Since this device is hypothetical, I imagine the same answer may be applied to real technology. (such as taking a radio apart and building your own without understanding what radio waves are)

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    $\begingroup$ This seems like something that's more of a story detail than any fact of your world. Perhaps the engineering team struggles for years but never gets anywhere, perhaps they solve it in the nick of time to save humanity. Regardless of how the story plays out the grit and tenacity of the characters will have as much of an impact as anything else. It's a cool story to write but we're not here to write stories for you. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 4:57
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    $\begingroup$ There is a significant discrepancy between title and body. Reverse-engineering a device implies, to me, understanding how that device works or at least how to operate it. Replicating a device, however, may or may not require any such understanding. Could you please clarify exactly what you want: Understanding, Operating, or Replicating? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ sphennings, I could always hand-wave the detail, but I wanted to know that, if from an engineering standpoint, is it required to fully understand everything about what a device does in order to duplicate it. This is why I provided a real world example. I am not an engineer, so I wanted to know if it possible from a technical standpoint to reverse engineer something without fully understanding how its end-function is accomplished. $\endgroup$
    – TehKaoZ
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ We can't even reverse engineer many objects that don't use fictional physics. E.g. mosquitoes. We can't explain in full detail how it works, and we couldn't build one. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ How delicate are the components? If the original device is disassembled and reassembled (by someone who doesn't understand it), will it still work? Is there more than one of the device? (That is, if the scientists and engineers wanted to slice one up to look for circuitry, or to analyze the materials, etc - would there be a working example left?) $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 16:01

13 Answers 13


Next to Impossible. Probably Impossible.

I'm an electrical engineer and I've answered a number of questions about reverse-engineering things on this Stack. [1], [2], [3]

First, I need to challenge a few of your premises

You're suggesting that an object sitting in front of me could (a) have its controls manipulated in a way that opens a wormhole and (b) can be duplicated with existing terrestrial technology while (c) depending on unknown physics.


The problem with (a) is that it's a technology dichotomy. The proverbial time machine that can be turned on by flipping a single switch. That's great for Hollywood, but a quick visit to any nuclear power station (any power station...) would quickly demonstrate that the idea of a simple set of commands bringing to pass a wonderfully complex result simply isn't true. Now, to be fair, it's theoretically possible that a really bad programmer wrote the code in such a way that a single easy-to-guess command (aka, "go") would turn on the wormhole. In reality, very intentional security and safety protocols exist to stop that very behavior. So, we have premise problem #1: the easy-to-access-magical-result problem.

The problem with (b) is that the physics of the materials we know about are, in fact, quite well understood. While it's theoretically possible that they can be used in a way we've never thought of that has a wondrous result, the reality is that the elements are still composed of electrons, neutrons, and protons, and we have a pretty good idea about how those work. If we make the assumption that there is the possibility of using existing elements in a way that does something not embraced by our current understanding of physics, your question instantly fails. Maybe we figure out the physics, but it would take years (if not centuries) to build the factory infrastructure necessary to replicate the device. People in the 1960s could reverse engineer today's microchip technology, but it would still require 50 years of factory development to build it. So, we have premise problem #2: the we've-been-able-to-do-it-all-along problem.

And then there's (c). I'm a fan of beating up Dark Matter, not that I don't believe Dark Matter exists (I do, ask me why someday, it'll make you laugh), only that it's an easy punching bag for this purpose. You see, nobody has proven that Dark Matter exists. There is no empirical evidence. There are a lot of believers (on the level of religion!), but no proof. At the moment, Dark Matter is a mathematical band-aid that has two possible repercussions: (1) Dark Matter exists and we simply haven't figured out how to see it yet and (2) Dark Matter doesn't exist because our mathematical models are incomplete and we haven't figured out how to improve them yet. Your premise sits on the very sharp edge that Dark Matter sits on. We humans have the ability to observe an effect, but no ability to observe the mechanism causing the effect. So when you ask, "can we reverse engineer it?" I respond with, "we can't prove Dark Matter exists, so probably not."

Next let's get into the reality of reverse engineering

Reverse engineering, for example, the microchips of today is really hard. Not impossible, but hard. You need to very carefully take the packaging apart because the chip is often destroyed during the dismantling process. We can use various forms of X-ray-ish technologies to look inside, but they won't tell you things like how the substrate is doped (identical densities) and may not tell you where all the wiring goes (identical densities). Even if you know how the microchip operates (you know how manipulating the voltages on pins produces predictable results on other pins), you don't know how it's doing that — which is the point of reverse engineering. And all that assumes that one has discrete components (e.g., transistors) on the chip, which is almost never the case. All kinds of tricks are used to create hybrid devices with the purpose of manipulating variables (size on chip, power consumption, speed of operation) to achieve the expected pin limitations and behaviors.

And we know how every bit of that physics works.

Now, let's do this with a device where we don't understand squat

People who are telling you that it's plausible to reverse engineer this device have no experience reverse engineering anything. That's a blunt statement, but it's the truth, and all I have to do to prove it is point at Dark Matter. If it exists, then the probability is that some of it exists right in front of my nose. And yet we can't detect it, manipulate it, or prove its existence other than mathematically — which means our models can be just as easily in error.

More to the point: some years ago my wife and I enjoyed a historical train ride in Ely, Nevada. During the tour of the maintenance facilities I had a chance to talk with some engineers about their efforts to restore trains. They became excited when they heard that I was an electrical engineer that liked trains. Why?

Because they had a device that was used in a particular model of train to regulate various electrical conditions for engine control and they had no honking idea how to replace it. It was the only one that worked and they had multiple trains that needed it. They hoped I could help them reverse engineer the device based solely on the proverbial gazintas and gazoutas. I spoke with them for a couple of hours about it, and in the end they understood the task was nearly impossible. They had inoperable versions that they'd cracked open and that didn't help solve the problem. It appeared that the device was a very complicated hybrid transformer with both inputs and outputs with no ability to discover winding ratios or meaningful tap locations (much less anything else).

Is this a particularly unknown problem? Nope. NASA has had the devil of a time replicating the Saturn V F-1 rocket engines. Once again, they understand all the physics, and yet the engineering tricks used to overcome manufacturing limitations (among other things) that haven't been a problem for decades have been all but lost to history. Result: we humans are having trouble reverse engineering something we built in the first place.

Conclusion: You can if you want it to as the author, but in real life, nope.

Sitting in front of me is an object. It has controls in a language I can't understand and those controls are certainly connected to a computer using the same degree of technology surrounding the effect you want to reverse engineer, which means I can't figure out how to make the computer work, either, much less reverse engineer the software and the peripheral control connections. But let's assume I can do all that.

What I'm left with is the other object sitting in front of me that embodies in every way the very first flow diagram of every complex technological project ever envisioned by man that contains a box with the words, "magic happens here." I don't understand the physics, do I understand the physics of the controls to the device? Probably not. That means that once I've disconnected the "magic happens here" object from the control device, what's left is something I don't know how to manipulate and don't understand how it creates the results.

Having mechanically damaged and electrically blown up chips I was trying to reverse engineer — which included chips I designed (yet another story that might make you laugh)... — I can tell you that from a Real Life perspective it's more likely that reverse engineering a device that can create a stable wormhole will result in a mile-deep crater than the capacity to duplicate it.

If I take my time to avoid the mile-deep-crater scenario, then what you have is mostly likely a slight benefit to the time that would have been required to develop the technology without the example. (C.F. my comment about people in the 60s reverse engineering today's chips.)

However, you've declared that the use, once discovered, needs nothing more than the technology we have today. Since you're handwaving that, you can handwave this. Thus, you need only to declare it to be so and move on with your story. That's what the Star Gate people did. They completely ignored the physics of what they were dealing with and assumed a 5th-grade control interface because in the end, the wormhole was nothing more than a MacGuffin for the stories they really wanted to tell.

Edit: Some people are experiencing a difficulty that I didn't think would be a problem. They're having trouble separating the complexity of a process from the complexity of its control and the complexity of its purpose.

An example would be an automobile. What a car does is very simple. It moves forward and backward. How it rolls forward and backward can be complex: anything from a set of pedals to things like turbines, rockets, electric motors, combustion... It depends on things like transmissions, emission control, brakes and steering. The important point here is that it's easy to "reverse engineer" the behavior of the automobile because what an automobile does is simple. But that isn't "reverse engineering." All that really is, is duplicating a behavior. I can do that by walking.

If all I cared about was duplicating my competitor's new whiz-bang CPU, all that matters is the very simple and highly predictable behaviors associated with the pins of the microchip. How the CPU works on the inside becomes irrelevant. But this isn't reverse engineering, and it ignores the reason people reverse engineer things.

I attended a lecture in college given by engineers from a business that built Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA). Simplistically, an FPGA is an array of NAND logic gates that the user can configure to perform fairly complex logic behavior. One of the benefits of their design was that all unused NAND gates were disabled as part of the configuration process. One of the attending students asked, "why would you bother to do that?" I've never forgotten his answer.

"Because if we don't, our competitors will."

Why is that lesson important? Because the result of disabling the unused logic gates means the component will use less power, resulting in a more economically efficient product in terms of both the cost of powering the device and the cost of cooling the system. That's a reason to reverse engineer a chip! Because if the goal is simply to duplicate the behavior, automatically disabling unused logic gates can be ignored and the result is a part that can be used in the place of the original even if there are inefficiencies that may have consequences.

A Formula-1 race car can be replaced by a Big Wheel. The efficiency will stink, but the Big Wheel will do the same thing the Formula-1 racer will do: roll forward.

I've used such a simple example on purpose. Reverse Engineering is defined as understanding how something does what it does. It is NOT defined as how to use something. Anyone can pull the trigger on a gun. Given the basic parts, most people can assemble a working gun. But I personally know gunsmiths, and your average person cannot design and build a gun. Oh, they might design a tubular object that could pop out a roundish object with enough force to kill someone — but they'd be more likely to kill themselves using it (mile deep crater...). That's part of the point. Especially when the basic understanding of how a gun works already exists.

A stable wormhole is not "rolling forward" and we have no idea how to make one. It's not a gun, or an automobile, or a cell phone, that the world already has a basic understanding of how to use and the ability to pass that knowledge along to even the youngest of the next generation. Unless I've misunderstood the OP, the goal of the question is not to "roll forward," which is all a wormhole does. It's nothing more than a moving sidewalk, a rickshaw, a means of transportation. In its purpose, it's no different from walking.

But how it completes its function is what I believe the OP is asking about. A stable wormhole is a highly complex consequence of something the OP claims we don't understand at all — and I'm taking the OP at his/her word that the goal is to reverse engineer whatever that something is. Not simply to use it, but to actually understand and replicate it in every way. If that's not what the OP is looking for, I'm willing to be corrected... by the OP.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer contradicts history. Humans have reverse engineered so many things. The whole science can be reduced to reverse engineering Nature. Well, how much it would take is another story. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ @akostadinov not really. Reverse engineering can certainly be done, sometimes, maybe even most times, given enough resources and a level of technology close enough to that being reverse engineered. But even then it's often pointless. E.g. the Israelis tried reverse engineering the Mirage III jet fighter after France stopped supplying them. They couldn't, despite having dozens sitting on their runways. They in the end decided it was easier to steal the original design drawings and smuggle them to Israel, which is what they ended up doing. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ @akostadinov - Sure, it is possible. It only took a hundred billion humans...300,000 years? Give or take? $\endgroup$
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ @akostadinov My answer does not contradict history. You are inappropriately redefining the concept of reverse engineering. In engineering, the phrase "reverse engineer" has a specific meaning. Traditional innovation through careful thought, trial-and-error, and testing, is NOT reverse engineering, it's engineering. The discovery of combustion engines was not an act of reverse engineering something nature already did. It was engineering nature in a way it had never been used before. If you feel strongly that I am in error, it would be more appropriate for you to post an answer. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ @akostadinov it hasn't stopped humans from TRYING, no, you're right on that. But it HAS stopped them on succeeding a LOT of times. Greek fire? Lost to the ages, despite a LOT of people and effort was spent to reverse engineer the recipe, back then and now. Roman mortar? Gone. Glas blowing took about a hundred years, and that's basically "make sand hot". Btw. We still do not know how medieval coppersmelters got to the purity that they did. Despite us having the ovens and so on still intact. We, with our modern equipment and science cannot reverse engineer their process. We do it differently $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Nov 19, 2022 at 12:04

It is absolutely entirely up to you.

The question is opinion-based as far as I can see. All we can say is: "it is entirely feasible to make stuff work without understanding the physics of it. It is also entirely plausible that reverse-engineering a very advanced piece of technology based on physics we don;t understand is unattainable"

Yah, sure it's possible

People have managed to reproduce natural phenomena and use them to their advantage without understanding the physics of it. We've been using fire long before formulating a combustion reaction. We didn't wait for Boltzmann to study the mechanisms behind black body radiation to use glowing hot filaments in light bulbs. We've been using compasses long before anybody had any idea how magnetism works.

To this day, we manufacture countless daily-use products whose basic mechanisms are still mostly puzzling the scientific community (glass,glue,tylenol,anesthesia...). We generally don't need to understand the physics of something to make it work. Most engineers have forgotten what a differential equation looks like.

But, sure, it's also possible that it's not possible

We had to wait to understand quantum mechanics to build quantum computers. We have seen lightning forever but haven't really been able to use electricity to our advantage until some theory of electromagnetism was formulated.

I mean it all depends really. Your engineers could very well be able to identify all independent components of your machine and copy it, making it work without understanding why. They could also miss some crucial aspects they don't have the keys to understand.

It is up to you, that's all

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    $\begingroup$ "Most engineers have forgotten what a differential equation looks like". This made me laugh, in a good way. (I am a mathematician). $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ "Most engineers have forgotten what a differential equation looks like" I remember what they look like, but not how to solve them. Does that count? $\endgroup$
    – Mookuh
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ This is only a valid answer if the material that makes the wormhole is intrinsically capable of making a wormhole. Compasses could be made before understanding magnetism because the materials used to make the compass were magnetic before their application (same with all your other examples). Are you suggesting that the material, which exists naturally on Earth, need only wait for (e.g.) the simple application of electricity to create a stable wormhole? It's like suggesting all silicon needs is electricity to make a video game. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ See also 1) Cargo Cult, 2) Tom Knight... $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH ''same with all your other examples''. Tylenol? I am a researcher in materials science, and I can garantee you that we continuously manufacture and come up with new materials that work tho we have no damn idea why. the question focuses on whether a lack of understanding of the physics the object is based on makes it impossible to make. My answer is ''no the understanding of the physics is not the problem, but obviously it could simply be too hard to reverse engineer if you so desire''. I don't quite see where you think we disagree. Your point of view simply focuses on the latter part $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 5:23

It really depends on how the device works

Humanity has been creating technology without understanding how it works since we made our very first stone tools (it takes some nontrivial chemistry and physics to explain why certain stones hold an edge so well, and why they fracture the way they do, but that is not required to make an acceptable stone knife). Quite a few things in the modern world are still not clearly explained. For example, even the best modern biochemists still can’t explain for certain how or why some very common medications, such as paracetamol/acetaminophen, work.

But there’s a practical limit to this, based on the current state of technology. As an example, anyone with a basic knowledge of classical mechanics and access to a large enough group of individuals sufficiently skilled in producing clockwork could replicate one of Lord Kelvin’s tide-predicting machines or Babbage’s Difference Engine (so in theory, either could have been produced decades or even centuries earlier if the math they were based on was known), but such an individual would have essentially no hope of reproducing a modern digital computer just based on a sample because they would not have the tools required to replicate the integrated circuits.

The key take away here is that technology needs to be advanced enough to make the device, but not necessarily enough to understand why it is made the way it is.

Because of this, you get into some potentially interesting possibilities for the device itself. Perhaps all that’s important is the exact size, shape, and relative positioning of a couple of specific, otherwise seemingly useless, components. In that case, it’s both possible for the device to be replicated (provided manufacturing can get the tolerances tight enough), and also entirely possible that most early attempts will fail (because people will think those components are not needed, or that they don’t have to be those strange complicated shapes, or some other excuse for things not being just right).

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    $\begingroup$ I think you should bold your "key take away" because that's the real crux. As long as it consists of materials we understand and can replicate then we should be able to copy the whole thing. It only breaks down if there are parts we simply cannot manufacture. (Project Hail Mary did this some. The alien ships were somehow made from a noble gas turned solid. We had no idea how to manufacture such a thing. We know what it is but not the process to make it. Avoid that, though, and it should all be feasible.) "Contact" is a great example of this concept in use, though. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 18:26

Lets start with an example.

There is a thing called Arduino board. It is basically, a simple programmable piece of tech. Even googling a couple hours and grabbing one arduino could give you some results. It is a, well-known tech, its fundamental physics are well-known, its details are well-documented, and there is an army of helpful people sharing interesting stuff they did with arduino, with all the details.

So, we should be able to reverse engineer it... Right? The thing is, arduino's codes and inner structure are actually machine instructions which are quite difficult to translate. There are layers and layers of automated systems simplifying multiple extremely complex details about this tech. So, even reverse-engineering an arduino is not easy. You can repurpose it, but that is pretty much equal to just buying a new arduino and starting from scratch.

Now, lets take a look at a hypothetical alien tech. Its fundamental concepts are unknown, we do not have any idea how it works, how it was coded/built, does it even have any code inside it? Heck, maybe it was growing on a tree. Who knows? It is alien tech.

So, can we, reverse engineer it?

Short answer, No.

Long answer, impossibly hard and extremely limited.

If it is a portal used with certain simple and straightforward instructions, you can decipher the instructions, make a user-interface for simplifying the instructions, partially automate the system and you can now "use" this thing. But not efficiently.

Lets use it for something else! Can you even guarantee it won't explode if we open it up? Can we even give it the correct level of power? Can we even generate enough energy in suitable form? Maybe it uses quantum technology. How much do we know about quantum technology?

If you loose the definition of reverse engineering, you can maybe use it as a hammer or projectile to throw at people. Maaybe you could detonate it in enemy camp. If it is an engine connected to an alien spaceship, maybe you can grab the engine and all parts of it, use some trial and error to make it work barely, and use that. But even that is quite a challange. And this was assuming the technology was doing something we could comprehend. What if it was interacting with a concept or something beyond our understanding?

I would say it is possible but extremely limited and situational. Even then, drawing inspiration from it and building something that could do the same job is a better idea.

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    $\begingroup$ You can't reverse-engineer it. Noting that the Arduino chip is quite old technology now, the world's greatest scientists and engineers, having access to slightly-pre-Arduino technology, could. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ Using arduino chip is one thing, extracting the code from the chip itself and then alter that from machine instruction to readable code, and reusing that is another thing. And I did not say impossible. I said not easy. The problem with pre-arduino technology is that, you need to translate those commands to something your machine can run. If it is like, 1930s level engineering, good luck. $\endgroup$
    – Sanfera
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 11:07

Unknown principles? Damn near impossible I would say unless the important features are so obvious by inspection that even someone who has no idea what's going on which is likely to notice them. That seems unlikely even at a the technology of the ancient world.

But even something like people seeing wings didn't really help them with building working flying machines. A wing just looks like a big flat curved long thing. A piece of high speed steel just looks like any other piece of metal and so does an antenna. And a computer chip just looks like a shiny piece of glass. If you have no idea what you're looking at then how are you are supposed to know what to pay attention to?


Not with one

If you had a single example, there would be no practical way to experiment on it sufficiently to reverse engineer anything exotic like that. You'd be far more likely to destroy it. Even modern day technology is going to be destroyed during reverse engineering attempts, and that is technology we understand.

We would learn a lot

Given that device, we'd use it in environments that are increasing exotic and increasingly carefully observed. This traversable wormhole would advance our understanding of physics by insane degrees. The materials the device is made out of are almost certainly going to be exotic; we'd probably learn a pile from the casing the device is encased in.

The amount of science we'd pick up from a functioning "safe" wormhole generator would be insane.

Replicating the device itself this way could take centuries, but we'd probably end up with exotic new technology faster than that. I mean, maybe we wouldn't be able to create a stable wormhole, but we might manage to make a stasis field, or a gravity bomb, or a reactionless thruster using the new science that comes out of experimenting with it and the wormhole effect it produces.

It would take a while

This process would be iterative. We'd start with doing stuff like examining the edge of this stable wormhole -- our current wormhole edges (models of them in general relativity) look like black hole event horizons, which is obviously not safe, so this one is going to be crazy exotic. Use it in vacuum, shine lights on the edge, record what happens, what does it do to electrons near it? Once we start getting funny results (and we will!) that starts us either getting a model of the physics, or at least getting new physics.

Carefully watching the device, like we can human brains, would occur. We'd get nonsense information, like which parts of it are interacting with a electro-magnetic field in certain ways. This won't get us far, but it does get us somewhere.

Maybe the device somehow uses long-ranged weak nuclear fields. As we experiment with it, we'd notice that weak nuclear interactions behave funny nearby, and we'd have ... some new physics to mess with.

Imagine modern tech in the past

If you gave a 1000 BC person a modern gun, they wouldn't be able to build a gun. They might be able to reverse engineer some of the propellant enough to make some interesting substances that burn fast. The metallurgy of the gun itself, over generations, might teach them enough to figure out how to make steel alloys (take shavings of the metal and do enough alchemy on it, you might be able to work out what substances are in it).

Anything plastic would be completely beyond their ken. The fine mechanical parts would be at risk from disassembly; but it might inspire some increase in mechanical techniques. (On the other hand, the greeks had fancy mechanisms -- just not the metallurgy and mass production capabilities to leverage them).

They wouldn't learn how to make a replica gun. But they might learn stuff from it regardless.

  • $\begingroup$ Honestly, if you give virtually anyone from modern times a gun with the resources of someone from 1000BC they won't know how to build it either. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 5:53

If the functioning is purely mechanical it might be easy or moderately difficult, if not the difficulty increases.

Without stepping into the territories of cargo cults, take for a first example a modern CPU: unless you know which signals go where and how they should be, it will hardly work; and even when you are able to make it work, perfectly replicating it is non trivial unless you know why everything is placed in that specific way and how it is precisely made.

Second example, a nuke: if you don't know anything about nuclear physics you will have no luck in understanding why the original explodes while your doesn't: from understanding the different isotopes involved to getting right all the details about the different stages involved in the functioning, it's way easier to get it wrong than right.

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    $\begingroup$ Modern CPU may be somewhat harder, but Soviets were known to take an existing CPU die and reverse engineer those to be able to produce clones / sometimes with some additions and improvements. $\endgroup$
    – alamar
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 9:26
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    $\begingroup$ A gun-type nuke would be particularly interesting. Because if you give that to a 1870 team of scientists, after investigating they could well convince themselves that they could replicate it almost perfectly. It would be a mystery why their copy would not explode despite using Uranium that would, for all they knew, have identical properties to the ²³⁵U-enriched version. — Of course, that's assuming they ever find out that the nuke worked as a nuke in the first place: before trying it would just seem a useless piece of equipment, and after trying nobody would be left to know what it was... $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ Fun story: One of the reasons we know that the U.S.S.R. Nuclear weapons system was built heavily on espionage is because the Russian word for "Implosion" is etymologically closer to the English word "implosion" than it is to the Russian word for "Explosion". The concept of an implosion was so new, they didn't have the word and just translated the English word. $\endgroup$
    – hszmv
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ @alamar the CVAX which the Soviets lovingly cloned was based on a 2 μm (2000 nm) CMOS process. That's big enough to see with an optical microscope. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ I think there should be people out there who are very good at figuring out what a mystery chip does. $\endgroup$
    – alamar
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 15:21

The basics:

  • Is that device constructed in a way to be easy to reverse engineering? Answer on Your question is an answer to this. If device was projected to be easy to understand and manipulate by modern humans then sure. If was desined to prevent any understanding then no way.

Imagine: modern calculator - not possible to ancient egyptians. But if make it with electron(vaccum) tubes and give power source from lead/sulfur wet battery then is possible to reverse this by them.

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    $\begingroup$ More thoughts on this: A device that is well suited to reverse-engineering would be made of discrete modules or components which could be taken in isolation and understood completely. Much harder would be a device which is holistically constructed for the purpose and has all its parts integrated into a single structure. Perhaps rather than printing an electrical circuit-board, the circuit-pathways would be designed into the physical material the artefact is built out of. We don't do it this way because we design our technology to be maintainable, but if you don't care about that.. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 8:44

Difficult, but not impossible

The most important part of reverse engineering would be a simple fact that such function (creating traversable wormholes for example) is actually possible. When you know that something is possible the rest is just a matter of resources and time. Our physics models don't support wormholes? Well, we will update those models. We KNOW they are possible after all.

So even the knowledge of existance of such device would be enough for use to reverse engineer it. It would definitely take time, but it would happen eventually. Having actual device would naturally help in solving this problem. But how long it would take us depends on the complexity of the device. It could take centuries (or more).

But even before we finish with reverse engineering, we could benefit from that device. If it uses some interesting materials then we could increase our material science level. Or we could get some insights into power source which would accelerate our understanding of physics (and we would sooner or later crack it, which would probably be a bigger thing for humanity then wormhole generator).

  • $\begingroup$ +1 Just knowing that something can be done means a lot. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 17:36

Very Hard

If you want the device to be reverse-engineered, then I suggest your aliens designed the device that way. They made it surprisingly easy for other intelligent peoples to make their own, even without fully understanding it. The other peoples might not be aware of this.

  • $\begingroup$ It's probably a sinister device too that you don't actually want to reverse engineer if you knew any better. The markers from Dead Space come to mind. As does a lot of the tech from Mass Effect. Those sweet sweet technological honeypots. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 20:49

We have instrumentation that can determine the composition of materials (at least the non-exotic stuff). It would be easiest if small samples can be removed without effecting functionality, but isn't always necessary.

Determining the composition is only the first step, of course. We are aware of a great many chemical formulas for substances that we can't always synthesize (sort of the reason we don't yet have a space elevator). Assuming there are no challenges in that regard though, then the next challenge...

Duplicating components. We can likely duplicate the shape of any component down to some pretty insane tolerances. However, we'd likely back off on those and produce them to more reasonable tolerances first. If those were to fail, (because a part is too wide or too narrow by 1/1000th of an inch), would we be able to tell that it was because of the loose tolerance? If the answer is yes, then we'd simply spend more money/time and do it right. But with the science unclear, it may not be possible to realize that.

And before you jump up and shout "But that wouldn't matter", I suggest that things like the Casimir effect could very well rely on parts being exactly the right size (on down to a few extra or a few missing atoms being critical).

Then, there are things like ICs. We could easily recreate a silicon wafer (or even more exotic substrates) without being able to etch out the pattern on the thing (and for that matter, even if we were able to etch out the pattern... we mass produce those things because some percentage of them are just garbage from the start and we keep the good ones). Photolithography is just an example, there are other processes like this that are every bit as challenging to perform, and presumably a few interesting ones that we're ignorant of even as possibilities. You can know what a thing is made of, know the exact size and shape of it, be able to make that, and still the final product could be elusive because afterward you're manipulating just a few dozen atoms on its surface (or hell, with beyond-human technology, maybe even deep in its center).

Then, we must consider that even if you get all of those right, we have machines of our own that require some sort of priming or initialization. How do you "boot it up"? If the prototype already had that performed, it then works, but our exact duplicate, down to the atom, might still not do anything at all. If that wasn't required though...

At the end of this, you now have a second device, a reproduction that works. It doesn't necessarily give you any insight into why it works. That is a separate process. It of course helps to be able to describe the device to the theoreticians in this level of detail, and it is now possible to experiment with the devices if that will further elucidate. My tentative answer to the question is "yes", in that sense.


These will be my steps

Step 1: Understand the structure of the device

Step 2: Understand the composition of this device

For Step 1: If we break it or do something like MRI on this device (if this device does not get affected by magnetic radiation)

For Step 2: The composition of this device is a bit complicated assume that a nomad civilization gets a engine that is using a special fuel that is not known by that civilization. it is difficult to generate those fuels.


Your device is a terminal

The device you have is not the mechanism, it is simply an interface to some other Machinery that does the actual work of creating the wormhole.

Device internals

The device is a fairly large, sixties-era discrete transistor-, capacitor-, resistor- and inductor-based analog computer terminal, with lots of internal parts and paths that do not seem to serve any practical purpose. You can take it apart and measure the components, put it back together, and it will continue to operate.

As a result, it is time-consuming, but not particularly difficult to build a reasonable replica, and if you're not too far off in the properties of the components, it will function identically to the original.

How does it work?

The Terminal does not actually do anything by itself. The commands you enter into it result in a very specific pattern of disturbances in the electromagnetic field. This pattern is then picked up by the actual Machinery.

What does the actual work?

The Machinery can be a godlike machine located elsewhere, or simply be a hidden feature of the universe-simulation we all live in. Its purpose (or one of them) is to listen to Wormhole Terminals, and create the appropriate wormholes when requested, if creating such a wormhole is reasonably safe. (this last bit may also save your characters from accidentally destroying the earth as they mess around with the Terminal)

Can we reverse engineer it?

Through trial and error, you may be able to find parts of the Terminal that can be simplified or eliminated, without affecting the function, though the fact that there is a margin for error to begin with, might lead you into dead ends. It is likely that over time, smaller, lighter, cheaper and less power-hungry versions of the Terminal will be designed, but actually characterizing the pattern that makes it interact with the Machinery will be extremely difficult.


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