Science 4 min read

Time Crystals are the Newest Form of Matter

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MartyNZ /

Scientists have created a non-equilibrium material that they call a ‘Time Crystal.’ The idea baffles the mind, but the science is solid. What does the introduction of this new form of matter mean for the future?

Throughout the Legend of Zelda games, Link has to repeatedly break time itself to save Zelda from living like a snowglobe. Now scientists, charged with finding matter in the fourth
dimension, also explore the properties of crystals.

Physicists at UC Berkeley and the University of Maryland have created what they call a ‘time crystal,’ and it has properties that repeat in time and space which make it an entirely new form of matter.

What are Time Crystals?

Time crystals were first proposed in 2012 by Frank Wilczek, a Nobel laureate and noted theoretical physicist. The crystal was only a theory, but thanks to Wilczek’s theory and the plan of one Norman Yao from US Berkeley, it has now been made into a reality.

Yao described how to make a time crystal in the journal Physical Review Letters, and two groups have already used his plans to make one, but it would be in our best interest to talk about exactly what a time crystal is before we get into that.

At the atomic level, a crystal has a structure that repeats throughout all of the space that the crystal takes up. Time crystals, then, have a structure that repeats in time.

Imagine a cube of Jell-O that shakes when you tap it. In contrast, time crystals seem to ‘jiggle’ in the fourth dimension, making them the first of a newly discovered phase of matter. Unlike the motionless atomic balance present in diamonds or rubies, time crystals are unable to settle down at the atomic scale.

“time crystals are unable to settle down at the atomic scale.”

Using Yao’s plans, Chris Monroe and his U of M colleagues employed a line of 10 ytterbium ions and a laser to cause the atoms of a crystal to settle into the stable, repetitive pattern that defines crystals.

In quantum mechanics, electrons form crystals that don’t match the spatial translation symmetry of the three-dimensional array of atoms, which breaks the symmetry of the material and gives us the stable properties that we know as a crystal.

Typical crystals break three-dimensional symmetry, but time crystals break time symmetry.

In Monroe’s case, a laser was used to keep ions out of equilibrium, which created a magnetic field, and another laser was used to ‘flip’ the spinning of the atoms within a crystal. The magnetic field and laser produced a repetition in the system that was twice the period of the drivers, which would not occur in a regular system.

So, going back to my Jell-O reference, imagine tapping a cube of the stuff and seeing it jiggle ten minutes later as opposed to immediately and you’ll have a sense of how time crystals interact with the world.

According to Yao, “You have some periodic driver that has period ‘T,’ but the system somehow synchronizes to that you observe the system oscillating with a period that is larger than ‘T.'”

What is the Future for Non-Equilibrium materials?

Any new material gives us many new possibilities for future research, but the only possibilities that are on the tongues of researchers lie in the keeping of memory and quantum computing. It is unclear exactly what time crystals will do for those two processes, but I would assume that they would be hugely beneficial in keeping memories over an extended period of time or folding quantum computing processes over time to give them more speed or effectiveness.

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The truth is, nobody has had enough time with an actual non-equilibrium material to come up with a real practical use. For scientific research, however, this represents a big step in our understanding of the fourth dimension. Right now the crystals are prime science-fiction fuel, but for all we know, they will eventually turn time travel stories into reality, or provide the fuel for warp-drive ships. For that matter, they may be the only thing in the future that keeps us from succumbing to an aggressive alien invasion (seriously, if you haven’t checked out Starship Survivor yet, click that link.)

For now, we who are not theoretical physicists can only gape and wonder at the very idea of a material that skips through time at an atomic level, and hopefully, soon we’ll start hearing more about what it is good for.

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William McKinney

William is an English teacher, a card carrying nerd, And he may run for president in 2020. #truefact #voteforedgy

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