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. 

 

Ice cream crystals. By: Ben Mills - Own work, Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons.

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: 

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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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