Time Crystals Are Now A Thing

Well, I have no idea how to visualize time crystals so here's some nice fractal art. Roman99/Shutterstock

Scientists have developed "time crystals", and while the name sounds like something from Doctor Who, they are very real, although they have nothing to do with time travel.

In the same way that a regular crystal has a structure that repeats regularly in space, time crystals have a structure that repeats itself in time. In a paper published in Physical Review Letter, American researchers led by UC Berkeley's Norman Yao discuss how to make and measure the properties of time crystals.

Time crystals were first obtained a few months ago. Researchers from the Univesity of Maryland constructed a chain of 10 ytterbium atoms and hit them with two lasers several times to keep them out of equilibrium. They found that the chain settled into a stable repetitive pattern, although the material itself remained out of equilibrium. This study marked the beginning of a new class of materials that can't just settle down in some motionless equilibrium like a diamond. 

"Wouldn't it be super weird if you jiggled Jell-O and found that somehow it responded at a different period?" Yao said in a statement. "But that is the essence of the time crystal. You have some periodic driver that has a period 'T', but the system somehow synchronizes so that you observe the system oscillating with a period that is larger than 'T'."

The ytterbium queue is only one of the developed time crystals. A different set up was created at Harvard and Yao was involved in both groups. Their results are submitted for publication and will provide a first look into this new architecture of matter.

"This is a new phase of matter, period, but it is also really cool because it is one of the first examples of non-equilibrium matter," Yao said. "For the last half-century, we have been exploring equilibrium matter, like metals and insulators. We are just now starting to explore a whole new landscape of non-equilibrium matter."

Time crystals were first proposed in 2012 by Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek, and while scientists don’t have a use for them yet, they might have the right properties to be useful in pioneering fields like quantum computing in the future.

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