Time crystals are not the kind of crystals you can hold in your hand. These are patterns repeating across time and space indefinitely, and for now, inexplicably. Scientists at the universities of Harvard and Maryland have produced the crystals in two different lab scenarios, making a reality out of a hypothetical concept.
It’s a discovery that is sure to make the 2004 Physics Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek smile – the crystals were his idea in 2012, and after he pitched it, researchers soon set to work proving his concept impossible. What made his proposal questionable was the implication of perpetual motion – that an object in its lowest energy state could still execute a repeated set of actions endlessly through time and space.
But others soon picked up the gauntlet. A Princeton University professor Shivaji Sondhi (who studied Physics at Delhi’s Hindu College) was curious as to what happens when you give particles at peace a repeated series of kicks. He predicted the outcome would be a new phase of matter. Along with Vedika Khemani, he published a theoretical basis for how time crystals could exist.
Another Indian-American scientist (and one of Wilczek’s former students), Chetan Nayak, took things from there, and predicted that the outcome would indeed be a time crystal. Norman Yao prepared the blueprints (among whose co-authors is Berkeley College theoretical physicist Ashvin Vishwanath). The recipe was ready.
This is when the scientists from Harvard and Maryland came up with two distinct ways of producing the crystal. Of course, both involved zapping something with a laser repeatedly and observing what happened thereafter – At Maryland, they zapped ytterbium ions; and at Harvard, a black diamond.
What they observed is now one of Quantum Physics’ newest quirks. The frequency of the ion’s spin was not affected by changing the laser’s frequency – the crystal’s changed spins to its own rhythm. They were “marching to a different quantum beat” as the title of Nayak’s paper helpfully elucidates. It’s a way of saying that the crystal keeps its own time reliably – and does the job well under pressure.
It’s a quirk, happening at a microscopic level. And while the real applications are far in the present scenario, every new revelation in Quantum physics is a step towards the next big technology revolution – quantum computing.
All said and done, these crystals don’t actually violate the laws of thermodynamics, since the experiment saw the crystals ‘driven’ by an external power source. The second law of thermodynamics still stands – with the idea a perpetual motion machine remaining unlikely.
But a very real application could be in quantum computing, where the time crystals would be effective and reliable quantum simulators – capable of functioning at room temperatures where existing systems require absolute-zero climates.
Another lies in timekeeping – a device that exists not just in our three dimensions, but also the fourth, of time. The implication is that a time crystal based clock could survive the end of the universe – and tick on for eternity.
The experiment gives physicists a host of new questions to answer. The more the paradox – the better! Wilczek attributes a thirst for the paradox as the guiding light to his earlier Nobel-winning research.
“In theoretical physics, paradoxes are good. That’s paradoxical since a paradox appears to be a contradiction, and contradictions imply serious error. But Nature cannot realize contradictions. When our physical theories lead to paradox we must find a way out. Paradoxes focus our attention, and we think harder.”
This research has opened up a whole new world for studies into non-equilibrium states of matter. With more insight into these new properties, primary schools students someday might be reciting the following states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, plasma, Higgs-boson condensate…and time crystals.
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