The bizarre reality of time crystals

It sounds like something out of an episode of Rick and Morty, but scientists say time crystals are very real and now officially a brand new state of matter. The somewhat fanciful name was attributed to a substance that researchers described back in 2018 with an atomic structure that repeats — not just in space — but also in time. If you're confused by this description, you're not alone. What it essentially means is that this novel state of matter can maintain its oscillation without any net input of energy. And if that means very little to you, you're still not alone. Normal, 3-D crystals have a repeating pattern in space which doesn't change as time passes. But since time crystals repeat in time also, they change from moment to moment. this is super complex physics, so let's just leave it at that.

Back in January, two independent teams of scientists confirmed the result from 2018, and now those results have survived peer review. Andrew Potter, one of the researchers from the University of Texas-Austin responsible for the new result explained what his team actually accomplished, "We've taken these theoretical ideas that we've been poking around for the last couple of years and actually built it in the laboratory." So they didn't just discover time crystals — they actually made them.

Time crystals may unlock advances in quantum computing

The science world is so excited about time crystals because they represent the first "non-equilibrium" state of matter ever created. Most forms of matter are defined as "in equilibrium". In lay terms, this means that all of their atoms contain the same amount of heat. Their internal energy is evenly distributed throughout their atomic structure. Time crystals are different, which means they could revolutionize the way we store and transfer information.

Norman Yao from the University of California-Berkeley explained the significance of this discovery to Gizmodo, "One of the holy grails in physics is understanding what types of matter can exist in nature. Non-equilibrium phases represent a new avenue different from all the things we've studied in the past." That's a pretty grandiose proclamation right there.

Amazingly, researchers are already talking about applications for time crystals. Scientists believe they may be useful in quantum computing, since they theoretically allow for the creation of quantum circuits at much higher temperatures than engineers can currently achieve. One thing's for certain, this new state of matter is likely to be a ripe area of research for years to come.