It may sound like science fiction, but it’s not: Scientists have created the first time crystal, using a chain of ions. Just as a standard crystal repeats in a regular spatial pattern, a time crystal repeats in time, returning to a similar configuration at regular intervals.
“This is a remarkable experiment,” says physicist Chetan Nayak of Microsoft Station Q at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “There is a ‘wow factor.’”
Scientists at the University of Maryland and the University of California, Berkeley created a chain of 10 ytterbium ions. These ions behave like particles with spin, a sort of quantum mechanical version of angular momentum, which can point either up or down. Using a laser, the physicists flipped the spins in a chain of ions halfway around, from up to down, and allowed the ions to interact so that the spin of each ion would influence the others. The researchers repeated this sequence at regular intervals, flipping the ions halfway each time and letting them interact. When scientists measured the ions’ spins, on average the ions went full circle, returning to their original states, in twice the time interval at which they were flipped halfway.
This behavior is sensible — if each flip turns something halfway around, it takes two flips to return to its original position. But scientists found that the ions’ spins would return to their original orientation at that same rate even if they were not flipped perfectly halfway. This result indicates that the system of ions prefers to respond at a certain regular period — the hallmark of a time crystal — just as atoms in a crystal prefer a perfectly spaced lattice. Such time crystals are “one of the first examples of a new phase of matter,” says physicist Norman Yao of UC Berkeley, a coauthor of the new result, posted online September 27 at arXiv.org.
Time crystals take an important unifying concept in physics — the idea of symmetry breaking — and extend it to time. Physical laws typically treat all points in space equally — no one location is different from any other. In a liquid, for example, atoms are equally likely to be found at any point in space. This is a continuous symmetry, as the conditions are the same at any point along the spatial continuum. If the liquid solidifies into a crystal, that symmetry is broken: Atoms are found only at certain regularly spaced positions, with voids in between. Likewise, if you rotate a crystal, on a microscopic level it would look different from different angles, but liquid will look the same however it’s rotated. In physics, such broken symmetries underlie topics ranging from magnets to superconductors to the Higgs mechanism, which imbues elementary particles with mass and gives rise to the Higgs boson.
In 2012, theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek of MIT proposed that symmetry breaking in time might produce time crystals (SN: 3/24/12, p. 8). But follow-up work indicated that time crystals couldn’t emerge in a system in a state of equilibrium, which is settled into a stable configuration. Instead, physicists realized, driven systems, which are periodically perturbed by an external force — like the laser flipping the ions — could create such crystals. “The original examples were either flawed or too simple,” says Wilczek. “This is much more interesting.”
Unlike the continuous symmetry that is broken in the transition from a liquid to a solid crystal, in the driven systems that the scientists used to create time crystals, the symmetry is discrete, appearing at time intervals corresponding to the time between perturbations. If the system repeats itself at a longer time interval than the one it’s driven at — as the scientists’ time crystal does — that symmetry is broken.
Time crystals are too new for scientists to have a handle on their potential practical applications. “It’s like a baby, you don’t know what it’s going to grow up to be,” Wilczek says. But, he says, “I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this by a long shot.”
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There probably are related systems yet to be uncovered, says Nayak. “We’re just kind of scratching the surface of the kinds of amazing phenomena — such as time crystals — that we can have in nonequilibrium quantum systems. So I think it’s the first window into a whole new arena for us to explore.”
Editor’s Note: Frank Wilczek is a member of the Board of Trustees of Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News.