Holding Time In Your Hands

What, exactly, is time? A dictionary might define time as continued progress through existence including events from the past, present and future. Or, it might describe time as a form of measurement. But either way, time is not physical. You know, meaning that it has no mass. In other words, it’s not matter that you can hold in your hands, right? Um, the gringa says prepare to have your minds blown. Physicists have gone and done it again. They have created a time crystal. What the heck?

How is a crystal time? Have you ever looked at a crystal under a microscope? Well, check out these images depicting different crystals under a microscopes:

What interests physicists in crystals and how they can be seen as “time” are the repeating patterns and symmetry, called lattices. What is even more interesting is that sometimes crystals will repeat a pattern in several direction yet opt out of other directions. Then there is the curious thing scientists call “symmetry breaking”. That is when there is disruption in a crystal’s spatial symmetry. The reason these unexpected occurrences happen is because a crystal doesn’t exert the same amount of energy in expanding and forming itself in those areas of anomalies.

In case you didn’t catch that “exert the same amount of energy” phrase, let the gringa draw your attention to that. Because that is the most amazing thing about crystals. Because they use energy to grow, a crystal is not just some dead lump of rock. It’s actually a living organic object. Granted, it’s at the lowest rung of the ladder where energy state beings exist, but, in a sense, a crystal is very much “alive”. But what’s that got to do with time?

Well, if a crystal’s physical aspect of symmetry can be seen and disrupted, albeit with a microscope, physicists want to know if a crystal’s temporal symmetry can be made manifest. In other words, convert time into a form of matter that can be touched, seen or held in the hand. Say what?!! Yeah, we’re not talking watch or clock here. We are talking the real, ambiguous, invisible concept of TIME blowing all of our minds by becoming visible and physical.

According to physicists, it’s already been done. The concept is to arrange a bunch of ions in a ring. Then they need to be cooled to bring their energy down to the lowest state possible. Theoretically, this will result in an unbroken ring of ions that are perfectly still.

Now, if the symmetry of the ring is broken, time is disrupted. That is done by rotating the ring. A turn. Kind of like how an orbit around a star marks time for a planet. But, with a crystal, the energy of this rotation can’t be extracted. It has to be conserved in order for temporal symmetry to occur, meaning time repeating itself in consistent cycles. Now, this is the theory. It sounds neat and tidy. Real life is not so simple.

When breaking things down to the quantum level, scientists find that time kind of doesn’t exist. The quantum world doesn’t care about time. When ions are cooled down in a ring on the quantum level, instead of being stationary they spin around and interact. The gringa supposes being friendly in the quantum world is more important than worrying about whether or not you’re late for a meeting. 

So, these cooled, social quantum particles kind of smear themselves about throughout space, willy-nilly, where ever they please. But scientists have discovered that certain things can provoke certain actions, allowing scientists to predict where a quantum particle might show up. This is called “Anderson Localization”, a discovery made in the 1950s.

Scientists today have discovered a particular chain of quantum particles that stick together in their ring pattern. These particles have a magnetization that can be affected by lasers to create certain rates of oscillation. This allowed scientists to measure rates of interaction between the spinning crystals. The scientists zapping these magnetized crystals left them alone to evolve on their own for awhile. They discovered that interactions began occurring at double the rate as before. Because there was nothing driving the particles to interact, since they were being left alone, the only explanation then was that the symmetry of time had been broken. Thus, a time crystal had been created.

It sounds like a lot of hoo-hah to the gringa. What’s the point? What does this mean? Does it have any usefulness? It doesn’t even sound like any of this makes sense. Maybe understanding the properties of this laser affected crystal will help the dear reader and the gringa understand the significance.

  • Changing the frequency of the laser did not change the frequency of the time crystal (remember, all energy beings, humans included, emanate a frequency, including crystals)
  • The crystal’s patterns do not repeat in space, but in time.
  • Once zapped with the laser, the crystals remain in perpetual motion yet contain no energy, which violates one of the fundamental law of physics. Thus time crystals are matter with no energy equilibrium (you know that old physics rule about for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction). Think of it like someone coming along and giving you a push in a swing and you never stop going back and forth.

So, on its most basic level, a time crystal is a form of matter that contains movement that is created without energy. The hope among scientists is that time crystals can become a never-ending energy source and the energy of time crystals can be harvested to power quantum computers. The gringa thinks, then, that “time” crystal is a misleading name. It should be something related to the perpetual energy aspect. Something like “crystal dynamo”. But nobody asked me.

The gringa would really appreciate it, however, if she could use one to power her air conditioner during the Gulf Coast summer season. My electric bills are KILLING me!


Technology Review

Popular Mechanics

APS Physics



IFL Science

images:  Xfoor News


K Glyphics


Video Credit:  Seeker


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A barrio gringa with a dream of cosmic proportions: writing to satiate my insatiable curiosity, worldwide literacy beginning with our youth, and to be the first barrio gringa to explore outer space!

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