If you’re dialed into the tech world, you may have heard some recent buzz about time crystals. A team of scientists from Stanford, Google, and some of the best physics laboratories in the world recently announced that they were able to use a quantum computer to make a time crystal. But what is a time crystal, and what are quantum computers?
Time crystals represent some fantastic potential for the future of both quantum computing and physics. Read on to learn more about time crystals, quantum computing, and what this means for our understanding of our world.
What Are Quantum Computers?
Quantum computers use a new approach to computing that employ the laws of quantum physics to solve problems. Quantum entanglement theory says that certain particles can become linked in irrevocable ways. No matter how far apart in the universe those particles get, they are still intrinsically connected to one another.
Quantum computers take advantage of this entanglement theory to create complex networks of qubits, which store information much the same way that bits in a normal computer do. These networks allow programmers to solve problems much more efficiently than they could with normal computers. In fact, a quantum computer can solve a problem that would take a computer a week in about a second.
How Standard Computers Work
Standard computing works off a two-option system called binary. In standard computing, something can be off or on, an answer can be yes or no, a glass can be full or not full. This system is expressed through binary, a system of ones and zeros that indicates whether the switch in question is on or off.
In essence, all computers operate through a series of yes/no questions called logic gates that connect together to form complex strings of thought. Think of this as the world’s biggest, most complex decision tree. Each answer leads you down a different branch of the tree to get to your eventual solution.
The Problems of Normal Computing
Imagine you’re sitting in your car with no map or GPS trying to figure out the best way to drive from Wedderburn, Oregon, to Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina. You have to begin by deciding if you should turn left or right at the end of the street, and then left or right off of the next street, and so on. You might find your way to Murrell’s Inlet, but finding the best route using this method would take you more time than you have left in the rest of your life.
This is effectively the problem quantum computing resolves. Normal computing requires problems to be solved via those logic gates we discussed, which means each route has to be explored one question at a time. Even with computers that can perform billions of operations per second, solving complex problems could take tens of thousands of years.
How Quantum Computing Resolves These Problems
Quantum computing is a whole new approach to computing that sidesteps the tedium of these traditional logic gates. Quantum computing allows you to consider all possible options for a problem at one time, rather than examining each one decision at a time. This allows you to arrive at solutions much faster and more efficiently than with traditional computing.
To go back to our cross-country navigation example, quantum computing is the equivalent of handing you a GPS to help with your route planning. Now, rather than deciding the best route by driving all possible routes, you can look at all the options at one time. From there, it’s much quicker to narrow down the most direct route from Oregon to South Carolina and even determine which ones will include the most Cracker Barrel stops along the way.
What Are Time Crystals?
Now that we know a little more about quantum computers, let’s talk some about time crystals. Far from being a sparkly gemstone that you can hold in your hand, time crystals are a new state of matter. Until very recently, they’ve been a hypothetical concept, impossible to actually design and create.
Crystals are defined by their structure; the molecules that make up a crystal are organized into specific patterns that repeat across space. This is what gives these gemstones their unique shape and some of the remarkable properties we value them for. In fact, part of the reason we use quartz crystals in our watches is because of the way their molecular structure resonates.
Time crystals have particles that are structured in similarly repeating ways. The difference is that these structures don’t repeat across space to form a physical object – they repeat across time. For all intents and purposes, a time crystal is a perpetual motion machine (with a few minor caveats).
The simplest example of a time crystal that you’ve seen in your day-to-day life is the pendulum of a clock. This pendulum swings back and forth in an established pattern, always returning to the same places in the same time. The only thing that differentiates this from a true time crystal is that there has to be a source of power driving that pendulum; time crystals use no external power.
A New State of Matter
We mentioned that time crystals are a new state of matter, much the same as solids, liquids, and gases. The difference is that, rather than dealing with how particles are organized in space, this state of matter deals with how they’re organized through time. The repeating pattern is based in movement, not molecular structure.
Time crystals do differ from perpetual motion machines in a few aspects. For one thing, perpetual motion machines produce work from no energy, while time crystals don’t produce any physical work. And time crystals aren’t actually perpetual; even the best time crystal that we can build right now will eventually fall prey to outside influences and the pattern will decay.
Why Quantum Computers Can “Create” Time Crystals
So how can quantum computers create time crystals and why have standard computers not been able to accomplish this feat? In simplest terms, quantum computers can be much more accurate and efficient than standard computers can. Their logic gates don’t have to be managed one at a time, and they can be calibrated much more precisely.
As you might imagine, creating a material so perfectly structured that it can continue moving in its established patterns ad infinitum is tremendously complex. Only the birds-eye-view computing ability of quantum computers are able to perform the necessary calculations quickly enough.
New Research Avenues
The invention of time crystals has a number of amazing implications, although most of us will never see their impact. Rather, this discovery opens up new avenues of research for experts in quantum computing and condensed matter physics. The most significant part of this discovery for us is knowing that time may, in fact, be just another element of our physical world, as easily manipulable as space, given the right tools.
Learn More About Time Crystals
Time crystals are an exciting new development in the world of quantum computing. These are not physical crystals, but rather something closer to a perpetual motion machine. They have exciting implications for condensed matter physicists, as well as for our understanding of how we live in and interact with time.
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