Time Crystals Could Make Science-Fiction Science-Fact


John Moore, Managing Editor

Teleportation and faster-than-light travel, anyone?

Toward the end of July, scientists from several top universities, together with researchers at Google’s quantum computing laboratories, announced they had created a stable time crystal. If this sounds like science fiction you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Time crystals are real, and they could revolutionize quantum computing in the very-near future, leading to incredible scientific and technological breakthroughs once thought to be decades away, or unattainable, with our current technology.

Time crystals defy explanation. They represent a new category of phases of matter. Because all matter (liquid, solid and gas) is ruled by physical laws, the explanation has a lot to do with the second law of thermodynamics, entropy (the continual process of random change in matter and systems), as well as Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, which states that a moving object tends to keep moving, whereas a resting object tends to remain at rest.

This new phase of matter refuses to be constrained by the laws that rule other phases of matter. While these other phases are fenced in like herd animals, time crystals are out doing their thing, and doing it very well, thank you. According to a report on tech-news site Slashdot.org, “A novel phase of matter that physicists have strived to realize for many years, a time crystal is an object whose parts move in a regular, repeating cycle, sustaining this constant change without burning any energy. ‘The consequence is amazing: You evade the second law of thermodynamics,’ said co-author Roderich Moessner, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany. That’s the law that says disorder always increases.”

What makes time crystals so meaningful? Quantum computing. Quantum computers are uber-powerful systems capable of running thought-defying numbers of processes, and solving incredibly complex problems, but they’re basically glass cannons. Not only are they fragile and hard to maintain, they don’t bother interpreting the results of their computations for researchers, leaving a lot of guesswork. They’re just not very reliable.

Time crystals could change this by giving researchers the means to create super-stable, highly predictable, easily maintainable quantum computers. Neural reporter Tristan Greene sums up the potential quite nicely in a recent article: 

“Nearly every far-future tech humans can imagine, from teleportation to warp drives and from artificial food synthesizers to perpetual motion reactors capable of powering the world without burning fuels or harnessing energy, will require quantum computing systems.” He goes on to explain, “At the far-fetched, super-optimistic end of things – we could see the creation of a working warp drive in our lifetimes. Imagine taking a trip to Mars or the edge of our solar system and being back home on Earth in time to catch the evening news. And, even on the conservative end with more realistic expectations, it’s not hard to imagine quantum computing-based chemical and drug discovery leading to universally-effective cancer treatments.”

Keep in mind that this is very preliminary research that will need to undergo rigorous peer review and be proven to be reproducible in other laboratories before it can be confirmed. And this isn’t the first time crystal created, just the most stable to date (the first is believed to have been created in 2016).

Where it stands now, the team at Google and the collaborating universities think they’ve finally shown how time crystals can be made using a reproducible process. It’s now up to the rest of the scientific community to take the baton and start hoofing it toward a brighter future for humanity.