Renowned physicist Frank Wilczek is bringing science fiction to life with his proposal and creation of time crystals. At first glance, this seems like something you would read in a cheesy science fiction novel. But time crystals have taken physics to a new level!
Harvard graduate students Soonwon Choi, Joonhee Choi, and Renate Landig are the physicists responsible for this incredible feat of science. Since the theory manifested itself in Wilczek’s mind and made it to the general public, countless scientists have been experimenting and discovering new things about time crystals.
One thing is for certain, time crystals are a very mysterious scientific phenomenon. And have the potential to shake up the physics field.
Time Crystals: Fact or Sci-fi?
So what exactly is a “time crystal”? It sounds like some insane gimmick that Zaphod Beeblebrox would make up in his campaign as president of the universe.
As science fictional as this new phenomenon seems, it has caused a tsunami wave of inspiration and possibilities in the science community. This discovery came about when a group of scientists observed exotic time crystals that arranged themselves in a position in which they became crystallized. They mirrored the same properties as the atoms in a solid. Except, instead of crystallizing material, they crystallize time.
These strange atoms are not a portal to a multiverse (unfortunately). But they do give scientists a fresh perspective and more experimental prospects.
Frank Wilczek proposed time crystals in 2012, hypothesizing that they could result in new states of matter. He believes that time crystals could produce new states of matter. Because even though the matter is crystallized, the properties still might change in time.
Time Crystals are Breaking the Rules!
If one were to sit down and take a general look at the laws that govern our universe, they would see that they are full of parallels. These types of parallels, when the same action produces the same result, but in a different environment, are all around us.
For example, let’s say you go to your friend’s house and slam the door to his room. And then run back to your house that night and slam the door to your room. The same loud noise would occur in both cases. This example demonstrates a spatial and a time translation symmetry.
However, there are some things in nature that can break this seemingly unbreakable symmetry. The lattice structure in most crystals is one example of this broken symmetry. This is because the molecules within the lattice structure prefer a specific place in space and conform to it. This is how Frank Wilczek derived his theory of time crystals. He simply asked the question: Can molecules break time translational symmetry? He further revised his idea by focusing on whether or not atoms have a preferred tempo.
The Scientific Community
Wilczek’s idea was soon brought out into the scientific community and tested and theorized about by a legion of physicists. At first, most people thought that Frank Wilczek’s idea was purely science fictional. And that it was impossible to actually bring it life.
But a few years after that initial comment, Haruki Watanabe and Masaki Oshikawa, two physicists from the University of California (Santa Barbra) hypothesized that they could indeed be possible if one were to bend the rules a little. If the atoms were given a periodic nudge it is possible that a time crystal could be created.
The interesting thing about these time crystals, noted one of the investigating physicists, is that they are stable. They do indeed have a preferred frequency, which is found by giving the atoms a few nudges different from the periodic nudge.
Time Crystals and Quantum Mechanics
It is well known in the quantum physics world that all particles have their own intrinsic “spin”. This quantum property is closely related to magnetism. However, these crystals have two spin values instead of just one. These values will swap back and forth depending on the time crystals tempo.
Experiments have been conducted everywhere to further test the theory of time crystals and their inclination for certain tempos. A group of students at the University of Maryland lined up ten ytterbium ions and hit them with a laser beam at certain intervals. They hypothesized that the tempo of the ions would change with the laser beam. But instead, they swapped values on a frequency that was opposite the laser pulse.
One characteristic all physicists can agree on is that the spin swapping behavior won’t continue on forever on its own. These crystals need some sort of kick start from an energy source to keep them going.
The New State of Matter
In the beginning of this scientific endeavor, scientists suggested that time crystals could be a new state of matter. Well, get ready to go back to kindergarten to relearn your states of matter. Because time crystals are now being considered a new state of matter.
It seems that scientists the world over came to the same consensus and have decided that elements in a time crystal should be considered a new state of matter. This new state of matter is the only non-equilibrium state of matter in existence. This is because the atoms are constantly switching their spin values.
Unfortunately, this may be a hard concept for little kids to understand. Considering the amount of advanced physics that is behind the concept. But it is possible that in the near future high school and college textbooks will be revised to include this new state of matter. It is also possible that along with these new textbooks, a plethora of research will be released too! Time crystals could also be a key piece of the puzzle in finally creating quantum computers.
Time Crystals and Quantum Computing
One of the biggest things to come out of time crystals is how they will be applied to quantum computing. Scientists realize that time crystals are an incredible discovery. And they are more than ready to get to work on using them to aid in the creation of quantum computers.
A quantum computer is a computer that harnesses the unpredictable states of subatomic particles to store information. They would have components that could store atoms and other subatomic particles for data storage and computation. One thing scientists know for certain is that quantum computers will be very good at factorization. In other words, in one keystroke, they can multiply two unknown numbers, and find a third known number. This is especially worrisome for services that use public-key encryption. The constant swapping of spin values of the atoms in time crystals is what makes them perfect for quantum computing.
Science has gifted humanity with a lot of crazy things since humans first decided it would benefit us to study it. Even so, a plethora of men and women dedicated their lives to various scientific professions just to find more crazy and more puzzling phenomena.
Time crystals sound like something out of an H. G. Wells novel or a mineral you would find on an alien planet! Upon closer and a more scientific investigation, it turns out that not only are time crystals very real, but they have the potential to be really useful to humans. Besides being just one more crazy thing that the human race has discovered, it will provide us with a wealth of information about a new state of matter we had no idea existed before.
Additionally, it could propel our quantum computing research even further than we thought imagined. Bringing us that much closer to making it a reality. Time crystals may prove themselves to be an even more important scientific discovery than we know. Let us know what you think in the comments below!
References and related articles:
1. Robert Sanders (2017), Berkeley News
2. Soonwon Choi et al. (2017), Observation of discrete time-crystalline order in a disordered dipolar many-body system