Wired relays top scientists’ plan to build a microscopic “time crystal,” a structure within which time would not be continuous:
In February 2012, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek decided to go public with a strange idea: Impossible as it seemed, Wilczek had developed an apparent proof of “time crystals” — physical structures that move in a repeating pattern 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 idea came to Wilczek in 2010: “I was thinking about the classification of crystals, and then it just occurred to me that it’s natural to think about space and time together,” he said. “So if you think about crystals in space, it’s very natural also to think about the classification of crystalline behavior in time.”
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. Crystals are said to break the spatial symmetry of nature — the usual rule that all places in space are equivalent. But what about the temporal symmetry of nature?
Wilczek mulled over the possibility for months. 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.
Now, a technological advance has made it possible for physicists to test the idea. They plan to build a time crystal, not in the hope that this perpetuum mobile will generate an endless supply of energy (as inventors have striven in vain to do for more than a thousand years) but that it will yield a better theory of time itself.
In June, a group of physicists led by Xiang Zhang, a nanoengineer at Berkeley, and Tongcang Li, a physicist and postdoctoral researcher in Zhang’s group, proposed creating a time crystal in the form of a persistently rotating ring of charged atoms, or ions. An international team led by Berkeley scientists is preparing an elaborate lab experiment, although it may take “anywhere between three and infinity years” to complete.
The hope is that time crystals will push physics beyond the precise but seemingly imperfect laws of quantum mechanics and lead the way to a grander theory. If time crystals are able to break time symmetry in the same way that conventional crystals break space symmetry, “it tells you that in nature those two quantities seem to have similar properties, and that ultimately should reflect itself in a theory.”
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