Crystals may be possible in time as well as space

What sounds like the title of a bad fantasy movie — time crystals — could be the next big thing in theoretical physics.

In two new papers, Nobel Prize–winning physicist Frank Wilczek lays out the mathematics of how an object moving in its lowest energy state could experience a sort of structure in time. Such a “time crystal” would be the temporal equivalent of an everyday crystal, in which atoms occupy positions that repeat periodically in space.

The work, done partly with physicist Alfred Shapere of the University of Kentucky, appeared February 12 on arXiv.org.

“We don’t know whether such things do exist in nature, but the surprise is that they can exist,” says Maulik Parikh, a physicist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Scientists don’t know how important time crystals may turn out to be, or whether they have any practical application at all. But Wilczek, of MIT, says the concept reminds him of the excitement he felt when he helped describe a new class of fundamental particles, called anyons, in the early 1980s. “I had very much the same kind of feeling as I’m having here,” he says, “that I had a found a new logical possibility for how matter might behave that opened up a new world with many possible directions.”

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