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Energy-free 'time crystals' jiggle with the magic of theoretical physics

Why it matters to you

They may sound like something straight out of Star Trek, but newly created "time crystals" truly are a scientific marvel. They jiggle like Jello-O, but do so without requiring any energy at all.

Time crystals sound like something that should be powering the Starship Enterprise.

In fact, they’re the focus of a fascinating, albeit mind-bending piece of research recently published in the journal Physical Review Letters. The idea is, at least conceptually, fairly simple: With standard crystals being structures in which patterns of atoms or molecules repeat in space, would it be possible to have that same repeating pattern play out over time?

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Apparently so, as two groups of researchers have been able to show. Professor Norman Yao from the University of California, Berkeley described how to make and measure these crystals, as well as predict the different phases surrounding them.

To create the crystals, researchers at the University of Maryland connected 10 ytterbium atoms and then struck them with two lasers multiple times as a way to keep them out of equilibrium.

If all that sounds a bit too much like hard work, then you can at least consider what the resulting creations look like: They’re  essentially crystals that jiggle like Jello-O, but do so without requiring any energy at all. In essence, it’s the perpetually moving, constantly shifting nerdy desk toy we’ve always dreamed of.

“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 told the news service EurekAlert!. “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.”

The idea of time crystals was first proposed by the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek in 2012.

According to Yao, there’s no immediately obvious real-world application for this specific time crystal, although other “phases of non-equilibrium matter” could be useful in quantum computing.