How Time Crystals Could Rewrite the Rules of Physics

How Time Crystals Could Rewrite the Rules of Physics

If you overheard someone talking about time crystals in a bar, you’d think they were mad, or drunk. Or both. These things, theoretically, oscillate for eternity without any energy input whatsoever – and if that sounds like a perpetual motion machine, it’s because it is. Impossible, right? But what if it was a Nobel prize-winning physicists making the suggestion?

Because that’s exactly the situation we find ourselves in. As Wired reports, Frank Wilczek from MIT has taken the rather bold step of announcing to the world that he thinks time crystals could exist. It wasn’t a decision he made lightly – it could well see him ostracized by the wider scientific community – but after months of work, he decided there was nothing else for it. Wired explains his idea:

When matter crystallizes, its atoms spontaneously organize themselves into the rows, columns and stacks of a three-dimensional lattice. An atom occupies each “lattice point,” but the balance of forces between the atoms prevents them from inhabiting the space between. Because the atoms suddenly have a discrete, rather than continuous, set of choices for where to exist, crystals are said to break the spatial symmetry of nature – the usual rule that all places in space are equivalent… Eventually, his equations indicated that atoms could indeed form a regularly repeating lattice in time, returning to their initial arrangement only after discrete (rather than continuous) intervals, thereby breaking time symmetry. Without consuming or producing energy, time crystals would be stable, in what physicists call their “ground state,” despite cyclical variations in structure that scientists say can be interpreted as perpetual motion.

In other words, he’s saying it must be possible to create a crystal that has regular, time-varying motion going on inside – without any energy being dumped into the system. That’s quite a claim. He was right to be unsure though, because he’s now picking up criticism from fellow physicists across the world.

Fortunately, he has at least one team of researchers on his side. After publishing his idea late last year, a team of experimentalists based at Berkeley offered to try and make a crystal that exhibits those very properties. If they can do it – and neither they or Wilczek see why they shouldn’t be able to – the most basic theories of time could be forever rewritten, as time crystals would break the fundamental concept of time symmetry.

The only problem is that progress is slow: the Berkeley researchers have admitted that the project could take “anywhere between three and infinity years” to complete. Until then, a theoretical debate rages on – and if you want to read more about the subtleties of the arguments, you should go read the feature over on Wired…

via Gizmodo

Be sure to pick up my hit New Age album, Perpetural Time Crystals from your local music outlet. j/k.

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oliverthered May 3, 2013 at 2:52 am

hmm… my physics isn’t quite up to it but don’t the electrons flow in some kind of normal QM probabilistic way in crystals, also ice is definitely less dense than water but that’s not a usual case and I pretty sure there are a couple of liquids you can combine where the volume of both is less that the individual volume of either… and if where talking about space that can’t be occupied I’m pretty dan sure my leg hasn’t all of a sudden collapsed in on itself and turned into a mini black hole.

I’m also pretty sure you can heat up and cool down crystals and change their density if nothing else, which you could of course do to just part of them at a time.

Apart from the electron thing it’s quite possible that the rest of what I’ve written just relates to a bad summary from whoever wrote the original piece and not to the actual physics in question.

Doesn’t gravity also break that symmetry too, last time i checked you can stick something in orbit if you want to.

oliverthered May 3, 2013 at 10:01 am

I had a bit more of a thought, crystals are sort of ordered you can use them to produce a moderately accurate clock for instance, but it’s only moderately accurate.

Also they are still subject to gravity, but if you had two objects or more attracted by gravity and the correct amount of dark energy counteracting the effect of gravity wouldn’t that create the same balance of forces, just on a much larger scale

Fred Killer May 3, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Why are many so-called scientists so closed minded every time someone dares to postulate a new theory?

That’s the very basis of the scientific method; develop a theory, test it and either prove it or disprove it and revise or abandon it for a new one.

It should be obvious to a child that until you know absolutely everything, anything is possible. It was obvious to me as a child anyway. Infact, it’s just about the most definite statement that can be made.

Again, until you know everything, anything is possible.

We don’t yet know what ‘energy’ is and people are imposing limits on what it is, what it can do and how much of it exists.

Furthermore, history has shown time and time again that laws that were once carved in stone are nearly always revised which is an inevitability, given that we don’t even know where 99% of the matter in the universe is or what form, if any, it takes.

Clearly, it doesn’t take any form that we or our technology can detect yet. Mathematical models are about as close as we may ever get and yet this is still an evolving method.


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