|Researchers have created the world's first time crystal, an exotic state of matter that combines the rigidity of an ordinary crystal with a regular rhythm in time. (Credit: E. Edwards/JQI)|
Consider, for a moment, the humble puddle of water. If you dive down to nearly the scale of molecules, it will be hard to tell one spot in the puddle from any other. You can shift your gaze to the left or right, or tilt your head, and the microscopic bustle will be identical—a situation that physicists call highly symmetric.
That all changes abruptly when the puddle freezes. In contrast to liquid water, ice is a crystal, and it gains a spontaneous rigid structure as the temperature drops. Freezing fastens neighboring water molecules together in a regular pattern, and a simple tilt of the head now creates a kaleidoscopic change.
In 2012, Nobel-prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proposed something that sounds pretty strange. It might be possible, Wilczek argued, to create crystals that are arranged in time instead of space. The suggestion prompted years of false starts and negative results that ruled out some of the most obvious places to look for these newly named time crystals.
Now, five years after the first proposal, a team of researchers led by physicists at the Joint Quantum Institute and the University of Maryland have created the world's first time crystal using a chain of atomic ions. The result, which finally brings Wilczek's exotic idea to life, was reported in Nature on March 9.
Much like freezing destroys the symmetry of liquid water, a time crystal disturbs a regularity in time. This is somewhat surprising, says lead author and JQI postdoctoral researcher Jiehang Zhang, since nature usually responds in sync to things that change in time. "The earth rotates around the sun once a year, and the seasons have the same period," Zhang says. "That’s what you would naturally expect."
A time crystal doesn't follow the lead, instead responding with a slower frequency—like a bell struck once a second that rings every other second. The atomic ions in the Maryland experiment, which researchers manipulated using laser pulses, responded exactly half as fast as the sequence of pulses that drove them.
Joint Quantum Institute: Ions sync up into world's first time crystal
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