Last October, scientists postulated a theory concerning a strange form of crystalline matter. Nicknamed Time Crystals, these curiously quantum phases of matter have just become reality. Two teams from the University of Maryland and Harvard University have both been able to build time crystals, and this new form of bling is really freaking weird. Oh, and it also completely changes our understanding of matter itself.
The science here is pretty technical, but in simple terms, regular crystals exist in symmetry. Their atoms exist in a typical three-dimensional array within space. Time crystals, on the other hand, don’t sit still in a three-dimensional array. They jiggle like Jell-O, constantly oscillating, no matter how little energy influences them. This pattern of movement repeats not through space, like regular crystals, but through time.
Norman Yao, one of the physicists working on the project, described like this,
Wouldn’t it be super weird if you jiggled the Jell-O and found that somehow it responded at a different period? 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’.
In other words, the time crystal vibrates across time instead of just regular old boring space. The key aspect here however, is not the time aspect, but the fact that this oscillation, this crystalline wibble-wabble, is basically infinite. Regular crystals reach equilibrium when forced to vibrate, in other words, they stop moving. Time crystals do not. Once they start this oscillation process, they keep going and going. According to Yao, time crystals exist outside of equilibrium, in a state of perpetual temporal motion.
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. 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.
It’s a beautiful thing when pure scientific speculation becomes a real tangible object that can be studied. The move from theory to fact is slow, but time crystals are here to stay. While the practical use of time crystals is currently unknown, scientists do believe they could be used in quantum computers as a super powerful flash memory, and their constant oscillation could lead to a perpetual motion style energy device.