Time crystals: what they are and why you should care about them

Time crystals: what they are and why you should care about them

We know that “Time Crystals” looks like something out of a movie. And it’s not a good movie either – perhaps something from the same screenwriter who created “unobtainium.” However, not only is it real, it’s actually more fantastic than anything Hollywood could come up with. They break the laws of physics. They appear in children’s gifts. They were thought to be impossible for years, and then we found about six of them in the space of a few years.

Since they may hold the key to future technology, we’d better get on with them. So, here it is: what it is, why it’s great — and how, just maybe, you might be able to get one of your own.

What exactly is a “time crystal”?

Despite the name, the time crystal is not that In reality Crystal. At least, not the kind you’re thinking of.

“A crystal is a system made up of many atoms, which organize themselves in a periodic pattern in space, due to mutual interactions,” Kostyantyn Kechedzhi, a research scientist at Google, told IEEE Spectrum in 2021.

a time A crystal “is a quantum system composed of many particles that organize themselves into a cyclic pattern of motion — cyclic in time, not space — that lasts forever,” Kichiji explained.

Get an idea? While a regular crystal is defined by its superstructure of atoms in space – so you can move left, right, across, backwards and so on and the whole thing will look exactly the same – a time crystal has that, but by time (go figure). You can think of it as a more complex version of our Earth-Moon system, a kind of two bodies that orbit around the center of gravity and return to the same positions relative to each other at a regular interval.

Of course, this is a very simple explanation. Time crystals aren’t actually made up of just two things: “The main novelty of a time crystal is the cyclic movement of a system consisting of many things interacting with each other,” Kchedze said. In fact, planetary motion is a poor candidate for a time crystal: “The true behavior of planets is chaotic,” explained Kejizdi, “which means that a simple deviation of a planet from its path today would cause the entire path to be reshaped over time. Even billions of years.”

But if you’re looking for a headline, here it is: What is a time crystal? It is probably the first phase of matter invented by man.

It’s “something that doesn’t actually exist in nature,” Achilleas Lazarides, a physics researcher at Loughborough University, told NBC News in 2022. “As far as we know, we have created this phase of matter,” he added.

Why should I care (or: whose thermodynamics?)

There’s no doubt about it: among the quantum physics crowd, time crystals are considered… very Big deal.

“The time crystal keeps moving and periodically repeats itself back in time in the absence of external prompting,” Samuli Otti, a research fellow in the Department of Physics at Lancaster University, told Live Science in 2022.

“This means that they are perpetual motion machines, and therefore impossible.”

How then can it exist at all? The key lies in the word “quantum” – the space in which cats can be alive and dead at the same time, and light can be both a particle and a wave at the same time. In both of these seemingly contradictory examples, the apparent conflict is due to what is known as the “observer effect”: in quantum mechanics, particles exist in a superposition—that is, all possible states at once—until someone looks at them, doing so collapses the superposition.

This kind of weirdness is what allows time crystals to break, if not break, and certainly bend the laws of thermodynamics. “In quantum physics, a perpetual motion machine is a good thing as long as we keep our eyes closed,” Otte said. “It should only start to slow down if we notice movement.”

As long as we just ignore them, time crystals may hold the key to solving some of the most difficult separations in modern physics. “The continuity from quantum physics to classical physics is still not well understood,” Otte said. “Time crystals straddle part of the interface between the two worlds. Perhaps we can learn how to remove the interface by studying time crystals in detail.

Some experts claim that crystals have the ability to illuminate the nature of time itself. “No matter how much you try to treat (time) as just another dimension, it is always kind of outside” in classical physics, Chetan Nayak, a research engineer at Microsoft Station Q, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Quanta in 2021. But when time crystals enter the picture, “suddenly time becomes just a member of the gang.”

Wow, this looks great! Not very useful, though…

Yes, okay – we admit it: time crystals, at least for now, are pretty much useless outside of the crowd of research physicists. But that doesn’t mean it will always be that way, and according to those who study them, time crystals are full of potential.

“A time crystal, like ferromagnetism or superconductivity, is an example of spontaneous symmetry breaking, or spontaneous order,” Kshidzi noted.

He explained that this puts time crystals on the same level of perfect technology as superconductors or ferromagnetism, except that even among these celebrities in the world of physics, time crystals have something unique going on.

“Spontaneous symmetry breaking is related to homeostasis,” he told IEEE. For example, liquid water turns into ice when the ambient temperature drops low enough; The hydrogen and oxygen atoms that make it up settle into the state with the lowest possible energy, and eventually their properties become stable.

Time crystals, on the other hand, play by different rules: they break time– Similarity of translation. They are the only things in the universe known to do this.

“The remarkable property of the time crystal that we observed is that it spontaneously arranges itself despite being out of equilibrium,” Kshidzi said.

“Consistent examples of spontaneous symmetry breaking (…) often have great technological value.”

What exactly will this value be? Well, that remains to be seen. However, the door is open: “Time crystals could be used as a building block for quantum devices that also operate outside the laboratory,” Otte told Live Science.

“Maybe time crystals will eventually power some of the quantum features in your smartphone,” he told NBC.

great! Where can I get one?

If you want to get a time crystal, you’d better have a physics lab at your disposal – they’re, frankly, a hard little bugger to get hold of.

Most of the successful breakthroughs have involved the use of supercomputers — such as Google’s Sycamore quantum computing hardware, which was used to create a time crystal in 2021 by Stanford University researchers with Kshedze and colleagues — or the ability to cool gases to microscopic temperatures, Otte says. And his teammates did last year.

In fact, time crystals are so difficult to create that until physicists at the University of Maryland almost accidentally discovered one in 2017, their very existence was thought to be impossible. And yet, with only a few success stories in the headlines, we don’t have anything long-term: “After long enough, the system is lost and the cyclic pattern no longer repeats itself,” admitted Kitchedze.

However, if you’re really determined to find one, there’s an alternative to all the highfalutin lab technology — which is kind of delightful, actually. Back in 2018, just one year after the crystals were first created, researchers from Yale University discovered signs of one of the crystals hiding in a rather unusual place. Not in a quantum processor; Not in a supercooled hydrogen tube, but in a children’s toy.

“My student Jared Rovney had grown monoammonium phosphate (MAP) crystals for a completely different experiment, so we happened to have one in our lab,” Sean Barrett, a Yale physics professor, said at the time.

Strip away the chemistry jargon, and what you’re looking at there is your own crystal kit—the kind you might give to a kid as a cool science experiment on a rainy afternoon.

“Our crystallographic measurements looked absolutely amazing from the beginning,” he said. “Our work suggests that the DTC signature could, in principle, be found by looking at a children’s crystal growing kit.”

So, aunts and uncles of the world, take heed: next time you gift your peers a slightly nerdy hobby, you may be paving the way to the discovery of an entirely new state of matter.

All “explainer” articles are verified by fact-checkers at the time of publication. Text, images and links can be edited, removed or added at a later time to keep the information up to date.

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