Introducing: Time Crystals; The matter that is stable when it’s in motion. Stranger than fiction!

“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.”

Total energy of a body is a sum of its potential and kinetic energy. When a body isn’t moving (i.e. K.E=0), the total energy of the body is equal to its potential energy, and this energy is the least possible energy at that state and the body is said to be in equilibrium. Thus, lower the energy, the more stable is the system. Thus, when a body is in motion it isn’t stable, right? Wrong.

A solid crystal. 

A new discovery argues our above idea of stable objects. These restless entities are being called as ‘time crystals’. Now, normally when we talk of crystal we image a solid, that is made up of well structured, repetitive blocks of atomic arrangements, the repetition going on in space. For example, a diamond, or a sugar cube. Now even though the laws of physics are the same in every direction, these crystals form their associated repeating chain of blocks only in a particular direction, and it seems that the laws of physics worked differently. This breaking of symmetry is called, as one would guess, ‘symmetry Breaking’ and is a thing that is still being studied and new properties of this effect are being discovered. Now, here comes the crazy part. In 2012, nobel laureate Frank Wilczek proposed that in the four dimensional space-time(i.e. the three space coordinates and time), it should be possible that similarly to Spacial Symetry Breaking (like in solid crystals) their exists a phenomena of ‘temporal/time symetry breaking’, and crystals formed by the above process were termed as time crystals. An elusive idea indeed. So, in simple sense, time crystals have a structure that repeats itself in time. Try imagining a ring that is rotating on an axis, now after some time T the ring makes a complete rotation, and returns to its original state, and the cyclic motion continues, and so it can be said to have a repititive structure in time. The only difference between a time crystal and the above rotating ring is that a time crystal is stable whereas the ring will stop rotating, unless force is applied, and reach the state of stable or no motion.

“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.”

This idea of time crystals attracted a lot of criticism until 2015, when two independent groups, one from Princeton University and other from UC Barabara’s Station Q, proved that the idea was theoretically possible. On the same path, Norman Yao made a blue-print to create the strange time-crystals.  What he suggested was to create a quantum system, such as a group of ions arranged in a ring, and cool them until they are in their lowest energy state. In these circumstances, the laws of physics would suggest that the ring should be perfectly stationary. But if time symmetry was to be broken the ring had to vary periodically in time. No energy could be, though, manifested from this motion, because of the low (near 0K) temperature, and so such a crystal points towards the violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

Things are but not so simple. The main problem is that the quantum world is not governed by time-dependent variables, so time symmetry cannot be broken on this scale. So in ordinary circumstances, cooling a ring of ions to their lowest energy state would leave them stationary. Here comes another property of a quantum system, that though it is not governed by time dependent variables, a quantum system evolves in time, and a the same idea of quantum system was used to create them.

Using Yao’s blueprint, two independent groups, one from University of Maryland and the other from UC Berkeley Harvard University, confirmed the creation of time crystals, despite using two completely different quantum systems. The team from University of Maryland published their findings in Physics Review Letters  on January 2017. Yao was a co-author in both the studies.

Flipping of spins on application of lasers on the chain of 10 Ytterbium ions by the Monroe team. (APS/Alan Stonebraker/Phil Richerme)

The team from University of Maryland ,headed by Chris Monroe, used a quantum system of 10 Ytterbium ions. They used an idea of Anderson localization and many body localisation. To explain the above terms, one should know that quantum mechanics is based on the principle of probability, and thus particles like electrons are not confined to a well-defined position but rather smeared in space. Sometimes, it may happen that an electron interfered with itself and in a closed system  has a well defined position in space and this is called Anderson localisation, similarly it was found that groups of quantum particles interact with each other in a way that causes them all to become localized. This so-called many body localization is a delicate state that maintains the quantum particles in an out-of-equilibrium state. In other words, it forces them to be localized. And that’s exactly how this chain of ytterbium ions behaves. Another important property of these ions is spin. The team used two lasers, one was used to create a magnetic field and the other was used to ‘flip’ the spin of the ions. The lasers were applied periodically, with a time period T, and as the spin of the first ion was flipped, it caused the other ion to slip too, and this change travelled along the chain of ions, and this process of applying the laser turning the spin, and the change of spin travelling down the chain continued. Now, the interesting part was that intuitively one would expect the chain of ions to change the spins with the same period as that of the application of the lasers, but on measuring it was found that the quantum system vibrated with twice the time period, and changing the time period of the lasers did not affect the time period of the ions. Thus, the chain of ions was independently flipping with a time period that was its intrinsic property, and thus, a time crystal was formed. A crystal whose stable state was a state of motion. Yao commented on the findings saying this was a greater discovery than what it seems, this opens the doors to a greater field of non-equilibrium  stable phases of matter. The team then measured some of the properties of the time crystal. The continued vibration of ions on removing the pulses represents the rigidity of the ions. It was found that if the perturbations applied were macroscopic, the crystal melted. Yao also described how the time crystal would change phase, like an ice-cube melting, under different magnetic fields and laser pulsing.

A 1-d chain of Ytterbium ions was turned into a time crystals by Monroe’s team. Each ion behaves like an electron spin and exhibits long-range interactions indicated as arrows. (Image Copyright: Chris Monroe)


“Wouldn’t it be super weird if you jiggled the Jell-O and found that somehow it responded at a different period?” Yao said. “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’.”

The Harvard team headed by Mikhail Lukin used densely packed nitrogen vacancy centres in diamonds to set up their time crystals. The team employed microwave radiation to alternately flip the spins of the impurities and to generate their spin-spin interactions, all in the presence of random disorder occurring natively within the diamond bulk. Despite using a completely different quantum system to that of Monroe’s group, the researchers observed the same significant features of a time-crystal state: oscillations at integer multiples of the drive period T (both 2T and 3T in this work) and robustness to perturbations in the drive parameters. Furthermore, both groups have performed initial measurements of the location of the time-crystal phase boundary predicted by Yao et al., outside of which the time crystal “melts” into a symmetry-unbroken state. 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.

This phase diagram shows how changing the experiment parameters can ‘melt’ a time crystal into a normal insulator or heat it up to a high-temperature thermal state.

“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,”

-Phil Richerme, of Indiana University

Time Crystals did not mark the end of a discovery but the beginning of a much bigger mystery. What, if any, are the other possible states of out-of-equilibrium but stable matter? How does the time crystal continue to be in motion despite its low energy state? Is the second law of thermodynamics finally broken? The notion,as was expected earlier that laws of physics are symmetrical in time and cannot vary as time passes, was also challenged. Time-Symmetry has finally been broken. Yao suggested that time crystals can be used as permanent memory in quantum communication in place of qubits. Phsysicists are engaged in solving these mysteries. symmetry breaking, time crystals and related phenomena are still unknown to a great extent and new information is coming out constantly.  More exciting findings are on their way, lets stay buckled up!

“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.”

-Norman Yao

-The Cosmogasmic Person

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. Zeus - Kings of Avalon says:

    I forgot, there is a difference between invention and production. The invention of matter took nearly a hundred years, water only a few minutes. Production of matter 20’000 years, production of water 10000 years.


    1. Shantanu says:

      Umm no. Listen. My biases and ideas are completely based on facts backed by evidence. Water IS matter, not energy. The matter can be converted to energy, but unless you do so, you cannot compare the properties of enerfy with properties of matter. Matter was there since big bang, hydrogen created and other elements so on, and when the temperature and pressure conditions were right, water was created by the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, water is matter. You can separate it into its components and verify them through chemical tests


      1. Zeus - Kings of Avalon says:

        Water is made of Emotion. How about you write a story about the defintion of the word MATTER, MASS and WATER


      2. Shantanu says:

        I am writing a post on basic science knowledge soon. See I dont mean to be rude to you here. But what you say is complete false talk. Science and scientists have evidence for their studies. What is said isnt just said, it goes through harsh peer reviews, there have been many theories that have ailed the test of peer reviews, this is how science is validated.


      3. Zeus - Kings of Avalon says:

        Scientist and TV-Programs have something in common. Do you know what it is? The dummest are most popular.


      4. Shantanu says:

        Yeah I would be laughing if that was meant as a joke. If you had hald the educational qualifications these scientists have you wouldnt be saying that. You need to have a basic science knowledge. Learn how things in science are validated and approved. How discoveries are made. Try to understand and you will know its not just writing a paper that something has been discovered or invented. It takes lots of efforts and criticism

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Zeus - Kings of Avalon says:

        Thanks for writing to me, Follow this link, and you will find out what you need to know about Time-Travel. It is possible, but only in theory. Please write up something, that explains the uselessness of it.


      6. Shantanu says:

        Matter is anything that occupies space has mass and can be perceived by our senses. Water is matter, it can be converted to equivalent energy. Using xray spectra techniques and other technologies, the structure of the molecules has been observed. Using chemical techniques the validation that it is made up of hydrogen and oxygen has also been verified. And all its propertiees have been explained. What hasnt been yet, is being studied. There are many things that we now know that we did not know earlier similarly what we dont know now we will know in the future. But doubting science isnt wise


  2. Zeus - Kings of Avalon says:

    I was focused on sensing energies for nearly 17 years, and am semi-blind now, but maybe you can help me.
    IMAGINE you are the programmer of a gigantic computer game,
    one that is so fantastic, that the players can not distinguish what part of the game is real and what is only an illusion.
    And now, the both the programmer and the point in time when he programmed the game, are gone. It was all still in his MIND or energy.
    Is that possible? Did I make it possible? If not, the evils have won, and everything we know will dissolve, and only energy will be left. The goal for 2012 (Inka year
    Inventions start in the mind, that part I’m sure you did understand well. And then they materialize, right? Did I succeed, and is CREATION now sustainable? Please think about it.


    1. Shantanu says:

      What you said is you had an idea in mind, now unless you tell to someone, your idea stays with you, and when you die, ‘the idea is dead too’. Even if there is this ‘energy of your idea’ left, hypothetically speaking, even then its just energy, you cannot bring the idea or information out of it because that would decrease the entropy, that is create order, which is agains the second law of thermodynamics, which does not break. Ever. But I personally think there is no such thing as when you die you live as an energy. Energy isnt an entity or something that can live. Surely your heat energy and such energies are transferred to the environment, but you cannot continue as an energy.


      1. Zeus - Kings of Avalon says:

        But I had to find a solution, and thanks to you, I KNOW, it is PUBLIC DOMAIN now, not a private invention anymore. TAHNKS. It’s rare that somebody takes the time to help me.


    2. Zeus - Kings of Avalon says:

      The imagination of the unexpected, as if you stick your finger in the ass, triggered sulfur, the only chemical there is, and that it turn triggered smell and bacteria and life. Sounds right, does it? And then there was the invention of HEAT (anger), COLD (lonelness), ICE (to cool off), FIRE (aggression), and TEARS(WATER), a cocktail of emotions, not sure to laugh or cry or appologize, all subconscious, we 3 gods were all alone. Barbara Palvin is the exteme one with the WATER, FIRE and Life (CELLS)


      1. Shantanu says:

        Listen, this is a blog for scientific discussion. I would reallly appreciate if you could talk folk and fairy tales somewhere else. There are numerous other chemicals, and heat isnt an invention, it was there. Cold and hot are sensations, not something that can be invented


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