Whilst it might sound like something out of a science fiction series, physicists have created a new form of matter that repeats a crystal-like structure in the fourth dimension, time.
Time crystals are described as an exotic state of matter that have rigidity of standard crystals with regular rhythm in time. The feat was once considered theoretically impossible as it does not conform to standard ideas of the laws of physics.
Standard crystals such as snowflakes or diamonds, and anything in between, have their atoms arranged repeating three-dimensional lattice. Time crystals, however, have a pattern that repeats across time which means that they should oscillate forever if undisturbed.
Many experts had expressed doubt before the discovery, stating that perpetual motion contradicts the known laws of physics. The way that matter acts at a quantum level is thought to play a major part in the mechanics. The time crystal is a closed system, so no energy is allowed to escape meaning perpetual motion is applicable. It has been described as being similar to a superconductor, allowing electrons to move without resistance, forever.
So time crystals might not be powering starships any time soon, but the newly found matter might assist with quantum computing and make the idea a lot more feasible. Prototypes of quantum computers do exist, but any disturbance from the outside world can have severe effects meaning the application has to be heavily shielded. The newly discovered time crystals could help protect data and allow for computers faster than anything we’ve used before. This in turn would aid the rapid development of areas such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
The research was led by scientists at Maryland University who made the announcement after creating a time crystal using the element ytterbium. They took atoms from this element and used an electrically charged field to levitate some of the atoms and fired a laser at them. The atoms started to act in a regular motion, flipping at half the pace of the laser pulses. The researchers tried to explain that it was like hitting 2 piano keys and getting only one note.
It was like hitting 2 piano keys and getting only one note.
The tests were completed last October, but the full revelation of what they had discovered was only released today. The scientific world has reacted with both intrigue and optimism at the discovery.
“This opens the door to a whole new world of non-equilibrium phases. We’ve taken these theoretical ideas that we’ve been poking around for the last couple of years and actually built it in the laboratory. Hopefully, this is just the first example of these, with many more to come.” Professor Andrew Potter, of Texas University at Austin.
Not all were so convinced by the discovery. Professor Chetan Nayak, of University of California, said that whilst it might be possible that time crystals were created, more research was needed to understand if this was truly perpetual motion and breaking the time-translational symmetry of the laws of physics is not an easy feat.
“The results point to the need for experiments that truly show that the oscillations remain in phase over extended times and are not washed out by the inevitable fluctuations.”