Time Crystals: A New Form of Matter

Four years ago, I read an article in Wired magazine about a concept advanced by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Frank Wilczek. According to the article, Wilczek “developed an apparent proof of “time crystals” — physical structures that move in a repeating pattern, like minute hands rounding clocks, without expending energy or ever winding down. Unlike clocks or any other known objects, time crystals derive their movement not from stored energy but from a break in the symmetry of time, enabling a special form of perpetual motion.” The concept fascinated me, but I tended to side with a theoretical physicist detractor, Patrick Bruno, also cited in the article, who argued that Wilczek “mistakenly identified time-dependent behavior of objects in excited energetic states, rather than their ground states.” How I came to the conclusion that I even understood enough about the matter to take sides is beyond me. Today, though, I came across another article about proof that Wilczek was right and Bruno (and I) was wrong.

The more recent article, from late January 2017, says scientists unveiled a new form of matter: “time crystals.” Researchers at the University of Maryland and Harvard University reported successes, following steps outlined by U.C. Berkeley Assistant Professor of Physics, Norman Yao, in making and measuring the properties of time crystals. “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,” Yao said.

Theoretical physics is far too complex for my mind to comprehend, but absolutely fascinating to me nonetheless. The fact that we truly do not fully understand the full scope of the laws of nature (and/or the manners in which they operate in opposition to one another) intrigues me. The possibility that this “impossible” achievement could lead, at some point, to resolving the incompatibilities between Einstein’s general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics is simply stunning.  I suppose it’s possible that neither theory is “correct” and that a third over-arching theory will emerge from the ashes of the two of them. Regardless, I find it thrilling to learn that enormously important, if inexplicably complex, work is being done. Pure research, with no immediate or even eventual practical application, is among humankind’s most remarkable endeavors. Pure research aims for understanding, rather than application. I admire that.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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