Time warp: pioneering Polish physicist paves the way for time crystals

Crystals could be built in the domain of time rather than space, according to Sacha. Didier Descouens/Creative Commons license

The pioneering research into the futuristic subject of time crystals by a professor from Kraków’s Jagiellonian University will be taken a step further by team from an Australian university.

The team from the Swinburne University of Technology is working on creating time crystals, according to a ground-breaking concept by Professor Krzysztof Sacha, published in a 2015 paper, which explored the existence of a new state of matter.

It all started in 2012, when Frank Wilczek, an MIT professor, Nobel prize winner and American physicist with Polish and Italian roots, asked a crucial ‘if’ question - what if crystals could form not just in space, but also in time? In physics, crystals are objects with atoms arranged in a highly ordered structure, such as salt, ice, diamonds or carbon in general. But what if the same arrangement was possible in the domain of time, rather than in space?

Professor Sacha, a 49-years-old a researcher and lecturer at the university who has been awarded both Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships, determined that it is possible to reorganise the movement, so that a new periodic movement emerges, when the whole system is driven by an external force. Sacha said: “I imagined a structure that is physically very simple. We can start with a ping-pong analogy. We can bounce the ball on the racket and keep it moving.

Professor Krzysztof Sacha outlined theory of time crystals in a 2015 paper.Fundacja na rzecz Nauki Polskiej/Facebook

“Properly done, the movement of the ball and racket will occur periodically, in an uninterrupted manner,” he added. “Now let's go back to science and change the pong-pong into a cloud of ultra-cold atoms, and the racket on the atomic mirror.”

The mirror, which is an electromagnetic wave beam, is used to reflect atoms, just like a racket would bounce a ball. If the atoms interact with each other strongly enough, a very specific state occurs, which physicists call the Shroedinger cat – an event that at the same time may or may not happen. 

"Any disturbance of this system, for example observation or measurement, causes the whole system to reorganize its own movement. A new crystalline structure appears over time, "explained the professor.

The Australian team under Professor Peter Hannaford will produce the atomic mirrors, while Professor Sacha will provide the calculations for the parameters so that the time crystals can occur.

Sacha added: “Now we want to show that solid state physics can be observed in the time domain. This isn’t done anywhere in the world, it’s a completely new area of science.”

Two different teams in the US from Maryland and Harvard have already created their own versions of time crystals, yet their models don’t allow for the same study of the solid state physics.

More research is underway with the hope of finding practical applications. Space crystals are crucial for fields such as electronics due to their properties as conductors or insulators and their time equivalents could prove just as important.

The American military research agency DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) is funding scientists looking into the topic. While their specific goals and applications are confidential, there is speculation they might include advances in atomic clocks for field use and quantum computing.