Physicists are used to dealing with some of the very weirdest forms of matter and ideas in our known world, from levitating superconducting materials to the mind-bending theory of time dilation. But even for physicists, time crystals are strange.
They might sound like some retro science fiction TV villain’s hidden treasure, or perhaps fuel for a Time Lord’s TARDIS, but this unusual state of matter is very much a fixture of our reality. Critically, scientists have observed the interaction of these crystals for the first time.
This observation takes scientists a step closer to understanding the strangeness of our world, and also has the potential to “warm-up” quantum computing, making it much cheaper and more accessible.
The interaction is detailed in a study published Monday in the journal Nature Materials.
What is a time crystal?
We’re all familiar with the most common forms of natural matter — liquid, gas, solid, and even plasma. Time crystals, on the other hand, are a newly discovered type of matter. This strange matter was first theorized by Nobel Laureate and MIT professor, Frank Wilczek in 2012 and confirmed just four years ago.
Samuli Autti, a research associate at Lancaster University and first author of the new time crystal study, tells Inverse that time crystals are basically a collection of particles in constant motion without an external force.
“Conceptually a time crystal is a very simple thing: It is a substance where the constituent particles are in constant, systematically repeating motion even in the absence of any external encouragement,” Autti explains. “This is very unusual in nature.”
He also admits the phrase ‘time crystal’ “sounds like someone adopted the name from a 1980’s TV science fiction show instead.”