Discovery of Time Crystals Could Radically Change Our Understanding of the Space-Time Continuum

Time crystals could even form stable qubits, making quantum computing possible. 

 

Consider a structure that moves not in space but time, crystals that change shape and move perpetually without energy, and always return to their original state. Such a structure would break the second law of thermodynamics, a cardinal rule of physics. Yet, in 2012, Nobel Laurette and theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek imagined them, what he called time crystals. Their movement isn’t of their own accord. Instead, a fracture in time’s symmetry allows for them to stay in perpetual motion.


Why crystals? Because they act atypically compared to other forms of matter. The way they construct themselves, in columns, rows, and lattices, suggests a spherical shape. But they often aren’t round or even symmetrical. Crystals therefore, are the only form of matter which compromises the spatial rule of nature. This states that all areas within space are equal and valid. Crystals break this law by repeating themselves again and again in lattices which form obscure shapes.

Space and time being related, Wilczek wondered if there were crystals who broke the temporal symmetry of nature as well. This rule states that stable objects are constant throughout time (with the exception of entropy of course). Wilczek’s equations proved mathematically that a continuous lattice could theoretically repeat itself in time. But how could something move on and on forever without using energy?

Time crystals move continually due to a “break in the symmetry of time.” These revolve at regular, calculable intervals, illustrated as a lattice continually repeating itself, thus breaking the law of temporal symmetry. Though his equation worked out, Wilczek’s theory was at first dismissed as “impossible,” by colleagues.

Theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek.

A recent paper showed that they might in fact be possible. [Update: They're real—it's official] This emboldened researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Experimental physicists there teamed up with colleagues at Microsoft’s research lab station Q, and outlined how they could prove their existence. Two teams of scientists then followed this “blueprint” and actually made time crystals. The first was out of the University of Maryland in College Park, led by Chris Monroe. The other was at Harvard University, led by Mikhail Lukin.

In the University of Maryland experiment, researchers took 10 ytterbium ions whose electron spins were entangled, and used a laser to create a magnetic field around them. Then a second laser was used to push their atoms. The atoms started moving together, due to their entanglement, creating a pattern of repeating lattices. Besides physical symmetry, the atoms would have to break time symmetry as well. After a few moments, something odd happened. The pattern of movement soon became different than that of the laser pushing the atoms. Atoms reacted even when the laser hadn’t hit them.

Consider a Jell-O mold resting on a plate. If you take a spoon and smacked it, it’ll jiggle. But if it were a time crystal, it would never stop moving, oscillating even at its resting or ground state. But what if the Jell-O reacted, even when you hadn’t tapped it? Odd as it is, that’s what happened in this experiment, according to one physicist.

By using different laser pulses and creating different magnetic fields, scientist found that they could change the phase of the crystals. Harvard researchers conducted a similar experiment. But here, they used the centers of diamonds containing flaws known as nitrogen vacancy centers. These molecules were hit with microwaves and they reacted in the same way. Two separate systems showing the same results proves that this type of matter is indeed present. It also illustrates that breaks in symmetry can occur not only in space but in time.

Whereas normal crystals can be asymmetrical in space, time crystals are asymmetrical in time.

Most of the matter we’ve studied up until this point has been at equilibrium or stable at its resting phase. This newly discovered, non-equilibrium matter could upend everything we know about physics. Other forms may also be out there, waiting for us to discover them. Future discoveries in non-equilibrium matter may help us heal the rift between relativity and quantum mechanics, or even create an entirely new model, more precise than these two. It could also lead to new technology, helping to form for example stabile qubits upon which quantum computing can be built. A system using time crystals could store information even after everything around it had perished. It wouldn’t last forever, but longer than almost anything else.

According to Wilczek, the closest thing we have now to a time crystal is a superconductor. No energy could be taken out of the crystals unless first placed inside. Electrons flow through a superconductor linearly without facing resistance. With a time crystal they’d travel in a loop. Theoretically, time crystals could be used in bizarre, lumpy forms. Current would also fluctuate according to the structure’s phase or movement.

Time crystals, according to Wilczek, would have been born early on in the universe’s existence during its cooling phase. Studying these crystals might offer clues to the origins of the universe and how it evolved. It may even revolutionize our understanding of the space-time continuum. Wilczek said in one talk that discovering time crystals would be like discovering “a new continent.” He added, "A New World, or Antarctica, time will tell."

To learn more about time crystals, click here: 

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
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