To most people, crystals mean diamond bling, semiprecious gems or perhaps the jagged amethyst or quartz crystals beloved by collectors.
To Norman Yao, these inert crystals are the tip of the iceberg.
If crystals have an atomic structure that repeats in space, like the carbon lattice of a diamond, why can’t crystals also have a structure that repeats in time? That is, a time crystal?
In a paper published online last week in the journal Physical Review Letters, the University of California, Berkeley assistant professor of physics describes exactly how to make and measure the properties of such a crystal, and even predicts what the various phases surrounding the time crystal should be — akin to the liquid and gas phases of ice.
This is not mere speculation. Two groups followed Yao’s blueprint and have already created the first-ever time crystals. The groups at the University of Maryland and Harvard University reported their successes, using two totally different setups, in papers posted online last year, and have submitted the results for publication. Yao is a co-author on both papers.
Time crystals repeat in time because they are kicked periodically, sort of like tapping Jell-O repeatedly to get it to jiggle, Yao said. The big breakthrough, he argues, is less that these particular crystals repeat in time than that they are the first of a large class of new materials that are intrinsically out of equilibrium, unable to settle down to the motionless equilibrium of, for example, a diamond or ruby.
“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. “For the last half-century, we have been exploring equilibrium matter, like metals and insulators. We are just now starting to explore a whole new landscape of non-equilibrium matter.”
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