For the First Time Ever, Physicists Caught Time Crystals Interacting

For the first time, scientists have observed an interaction of a rare and baffling form of matter called time crystals. The crystals look at a glance like “regular” crystals, but they have a relationship to time that both intrigues and puzzles scientists because of its unpredictability. Now, experts say they could have applications in quantum computing.

Scientists only theorized the existence of time crystals starting in the 2010s, making this the state-of-matter equivalent of so-called ruby chocolate—is it really a new thing or just a special case of something else? (Sorry, ruby chocolate, we’re not convinced.)

By 2015, researchers were outlining ways time crystals could exist, generalized as a “non-equilibrium form of matter”:

“The team was investigating what happens when certain isolated quantum systems, made of a potpourri of interacting particles, are frequently prodded by shining a laser on them. Counterintuitive to conventional physics, which maintained that mayhem would ensue once the systems would heat up, the Princeton team’s calculations showed that under certain conditions, the particles would glue together to form a phase of matter with properties previously unseen.”

Now, researchers say, they’ve collided two time crystals to see what happens next. “Our results demonstrate that time crystals obey the general dynamics of quantum mechanics and offer a basis to further investigate the fundamental properties of these phases, opening pathways for possible applications in developing fields, such as quantum information processing,” they explain in a new paper.

The room where it happened. AALTO UNIVERSITY/MIKKO RASKINEN

“Before this, nobody had observed two time crystals in the same system, let alone seen them interact,” lead author Samuli Autti, of Lancaster University, said in a statement. “Controlled interactions are the number one item on the wish list of anyone looking to harness a time crystal for practical applications, such as quantum information processing.”

Without this key finding, people could likely not entertain even the notion that a time crystal could be part of a designed system at all.

What is the odd oscillation that sets these crystals apart? There’s an interior motion that seems to violate one of the fundamental laws of physics, which is that the moving particles continue to move and seem never to lose any energy. Where is the initial energy coming from, and why doesn’t it ever dissipate?

In a way, studying how the crystals interact makes the question more puzzling, because it narrows down some parameters. The crystals act normal in these certain other ways, and that means whatever the energy source or phenomenon is remains at large.

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