Scientists find hint of ‘time crystal’ in the unlikeliest of places

3 May 2018

Image: ZlataMarka/Shutterstock

Believe it or not, a time crystal might actually exist, and its likeliest hiding place is within a child’s toy.

Fans of the Marvel cinematic universe might be shocked to know that a ‘time crystal’ does indeed have a basis in reality, but perhaps not so much as to be able to distort time itself.

Rather, the real-life time crystal is a form of matter that ‘ticks’ when exposed to an electromagnetic pulse, differing it from standard crystals.

In ordinary crystals, such as salt or quartz, atoms are arranged in a repeating system, which remains unchanged as time passes. First discovered in 2016, time crystal atoms spin periodically – first in one direction and then in another – as a pulsating force is used to flip them, creating the ticking. The ticking in a time crystal is locked at a particular frequency, even when the pulse flips are imperfect.

From science kit to science lab

Now, a team from Yale University has stumbled on a very unlikely potential source for a time crystal: a crystal commonly found in a child’s toy.

Published in a pair of studies (one in Physical Review Letters and the other in Physical Review B), the findings represent the second known experiment to observe a signature for a discrete time crystal (DTC) in a solid. In this case, monoammonium phosphate (MAP) crystals.

MAP crystals are very easy to produce, so much so that their ingredients are often included in science kits for kids to create their own.

Going into the experiment, there was little belief that a hint of a time crystal could be found there as they were only believed to form in crystals with more internal disorder.

Just the beginning

Using nuclear magnetic resonance, the signature located within MAP crystals was “quite striking”, according to principal investigator Sean Barrett.

Study co-author Robert Blum said of the discovery: “We realised that just finding the DTC signature didn’t necessarily prove that the system had a quantum memory of how it came to be”. Blum went on to say that this spurred on the team to find a time crystal ‘echo’ to reveal the hidden coherence, or quantum order, within the system.

Barrett now believes that, with these initial findings, he and other researchers can hope to better understand how time crystals form.

“It’s too early to tell what the resolution will be for the current theory of discrete time crystals, but people will be working on this question for at least the next few years,” he said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic