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Time Reflections Of Electromagnetic Waves Have Been Demonstrated For The First Time

Although time reflection has long been a familiar concept to physicists, they’ve only just worked out how to perform it without using an unfeasible amount of energy.


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

Schematic of the first electromagnetic time reflections.

Schematic of the first electromagnetic time reflections. A control signal (green) changed the impedance of a metamaterial fast enough to turn the blue signal to red. Image credit: Andrea Alu (cropped)

By switching the dielectric constant of a metamaterial, physicists have time-reflected electromagnetic waves being carried within it. The didn’t turn back time Cher-style, but the signal carried by the waves underwent both a reversal in order and frequency lengthening. Besides confirming a possibility theoreticians have been toying with for 60 years, the work could allow greater control over the way waves and matter interact. It could prove useful in photonics, the quest to replace electricity in information technology with light, allowing for an astonishing increase in speed.

Ordinary wave reflection off a suitable boundary is a familiar part of life. We witness it every day when we look in the mirror, hear it in echoes, and can watch ocean waves bounce off a breakwater if we want to see the process on a more graspable scale.


Time reflections, also known as temporal reflections, are something different, requiring an abrupt shift not just in the wave, but in the medium through which it is traveling. As occurred so often in the mid-20th century, theoretical physicists ran ahead of their experimental counterparts, discussing the workings of the phenomenon before it had been observed. In Nature Physics, a team at City University of New York announce they have caught up.

Time reflections produce a shift in frequency, which is relatively easy to understand, and a wave reversal in time, which is not. The first involves something like the Doppler shift, where wavelengths are stretched or contracted, most familiar in the redshift seen from distant galaxies. Light that is blue before the reflection becomes yellow, green light becomes red, and so on. Harder to get one’s head around is the way the end of a signal is reflected first, so that we hear the signal backwards, like old-style conspiracy theorists who thought they could detect satanic messages by spinning rock records the wrong way.

The phenomenon of time reflection is associated with time crystals, whose atoms form patterns that repeat in time as ordinary crystals do in space. The surprising discovery of examples of these objects has raised interest in related concepts. However, time reflection requires the properties of the medium to change at more than twice the frequency of the wave. The exceptionally high frequencies of visible light, let alone anything in the UV or X-ray part of the spectrum, make this a challenge, although it has been demonstrated in water waves.

"The key roadblock that prevented time reflections in previous studies was the belief that it would require large amounts of energy to create a temporal interface," said Dr Gengyu Xu in a statement. "It is very difficult to change the properties of a medium quick enough, uniformly, and with enough contrast to time reflect electromagnetic signals because they oscillate very fast.”

figure showing the concept of time reflection versus spatial reflection
In a spatial reflection (a) we see our face reversed left to right. In a temporal reflection (b) we would see the back of our head because the wave order is reversed, and the colors would be changed thanks to frequency shifting. (C) Schematic of the experimental set up, with a control signal changing the medium through which a wave passes fast enough to induce time reflection. Image credit: Andrea Alu

The team turned to metamaterials, substances with properties never seen in nature.

“Our idea was to avoid changing the properties of the host material, and instead create a metamaterial in which additional elements can be abruptly added or subtracted through fast switches," Xu said. 

The team confirmed their achievement by combining time-reflected and time-refracted versions of the same signal and observing the interference. 

The study is published in Nature Physics


spaceSpace and Physicsspacephysics
  • tag
  • metamaterial,

  • metamaterials,

  • waves,

  • physics,

  • electromagnetic waves,

  • time crystals,

  • time reflection,

  • photonics,

  • frequency shift