It sounds like something pulled straight from the pages of a Marvel comic book: strange crystals that can move without energy. The crystals’ structure repeats in both space and time. These time crystals, first theorized in 2012, are now a reality thanks to two independent research teams. This discovery could confirm an entirely new type of matter and become foundational for further quantum study.
Nobel-Prize winning theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek proposed time crystals in 2012. He categorized them as structures that appear to move at their lowest state of energy – their ground state. For most matter, when they reach ground state (zero point energy system), movement would be impossible without an expense of energy.
But, as the researchers discovered, time crystals aren’t typical matter.
Time crystals continually oscillate in their ground state. They break time symmetry. Current quantum understanding says that electrons form crystals that normally create order. However, time crystals break that spatial relationship. The researchers describe it like Jell-O, but if you shook the Jell-O only to find it moved at a different period.
“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,” said lead researcher Norman Yao from the University of California, Berkeley.
“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.”
Yao’s work, inspired by the foundations laid by Wilczek’s theories, describes how to make and measure the properties of these crystals. Two teams at University of Maryland and Harvard University both reported successes simply from following Yao’s outline.
What Happened at Maryland
Chris Monroe with the University of Maryland worked closely with Yao to create a ‘conga line’ of ytterbium ions. The electrons interacted similarly to the qubit systems being debated with quantum computing. The team checked all properties of the new material, and Yao hinted at how the time crystal could possibly change phases under different conditions.
[Image Source: Chris Monroe, University of Maryland via EueakAlert]
What Happened at Harvard
Mikhail Lukin led the Harvard research team and used nitrogen vacancy centers in diamonds. The vacancy centers cultivated similar results as the team in Maryland, despite the differences in materials used.
Phil Richerme, a physicist from Indiana University, wasn’t involved directly in either study. However, he wrote a perspective piece for the research:
“Such similar results achieved in two wildly disparate systems underscore that time crystals are a broad new phase of matter, not simply a curiosity relegated to small or narrowly specific systems. Observation of the discrete time crystal… confirms that symmetry breaking can occur in essentially all natural realms, and clears the way to several new avenues of research.”
To hear more from Wilczek and get a background for time crystals, check out the video from his Google talk below:
[Featured Image Source: Pixabay]