This is one of those stories which I have to blog about, simply because it plays into so much of the type of speculations that I and the readers of this website like to indulge in. But first, a big thank you to C.V. for spotting this one and sending it along; it made my day!
The reason it made my day is because "time crystals," which have long been theorized in quantum mechanics, have taken a major step toward actually having been - for a few moments - created by Google. Regular readers, or members, of this website or readers of my books will have heard me sometimes speak of the "lattice of space-time" and so on, implying the idea that space and time have properties best resembling a crystal. The idea isn't a new one in fact; one can encounter it in ancient and medieval lore and texts. But now there's a new wrinkle, so what, exactly, is a time crystal?
Essentially, a "time crystal" is the state of a system that, with regular periodicity, moves from a given state of order, to a state of greater chaos, and then back to that given state of order or something closely approximating it. The article puts it this way:
It starts with a thought experiment: take a box in a closed system that is isolated from the rest of the universe, load it with a couple of dozens of coins and shake it a million times. As the coins flip, tumble and bounce off each other, they randomly move positions and increasingly become more chaotic. Upon opening the box, the expectation is that you will be faced with roughly half the coins on their heads side, and half on their tails.
It doesn't matter if the experiment started with more coins on their tails or more coins on their heads: the system forgets what the initial configuration was, and it becomes increasingly random and chaotic as it is shaken.
This is where time crystals defy all expectations. Looking at the system after a certain number of operations, or shakes, reveals a configuration of qubits that is not random, but instead looks rather similar to the original set up.
It doesn't stop here. Shake the system an even number of times, and you'll get a similar configuration to the original one – but shake it an odd number of times, and you'll get another set up, in which tails have been flipped to heads and vice-versa.
And no matter how many operations are carried out on the system, it will always flip-flop, going regularly back-and-forth between those two states. (Boldface and underlining emphasis added)
There's a catch, however, and that is that the experiment had to be performed on a quantum computer, in which case, the computer chips became the time crystals, with qubits of information being subjected to the computer equivalent of shaking the box of coins:
A quantum processor, by definition, is a perfect tool to replicate a quantum mechanical system. In this scenario, Google's team represented the coins in the box with qubits spinning upwards and downwards in a closed system; and instead of shaking the box, they applied a set of specific quantum operations that can change the state of the qubits, which they repeated many times.
Here's the rub, however: time crystals have to be kept relatively and more or less completely isolated from outside environmental "noise", otherwise, the system of periodic system state shifts runs down. Or to put it differently, time crystals are closed systems:
This closed system, when it is translated into the quantum domain, is the perfect setting to try and find time crystals, and the only one known to date. "The only stable time crystals that we've envisioned in closed systems are quantum mechanical," says von Keyserlingk.
This point, as one might imagine, is where my temptation to indulge in high dives off-the-end of the high octane speculation twig begins. Many people - I among them - have speculated on what happens if particular quantum effects were applicable at larger scales, if, for example, the "observer effect" that is so embedded within quantum mechanics were operable at much larger scales. Similarly, we wonder if those larger scales are reachable via group observers, and so on. In this instance, there are whole cosmologies that have been around for a very long time that in effect view the entire cosmos as a kind of time crystal, with periodicity that occurs in ultra-extremely long cycles. Think only of the Vedic cosmology with its repeated yugas, or cycles or ages of time. Indeed, conventional astrology similarly deals with long cycles, and also provides a clue that in certain planetary configurations or lattice structures, certain aggregate behaviours are present. Again, for purposes of this high octane speculation, it's important to note that these configurations never exactly repeat, but rather, certain general arrangements of the lattice (planetary position) recur. (For the mathematically inclined, if S be a system state of a time crystal, then one could simplistically use S-dS to represent the recurrence of the close approximation of that state.)
It's that idea of extremely long cycles that's very intriguing in this context, because as the article notes, such systems are closed systems, isolated from the insertion of noise. That in turn suggests that if one wants to break a such a macro-system "time crystals" of long wave cycles, one has to introduce something from outside that system into the system in order to modify that periodicity, one has to break down its closed system nature... and for those really paying attention to the article, when shaking the box, one has also to break down its "even" or "binary" nature. Notably, is is done by adding more information- noise - to the system. Or to be clumsy about it, entropy is maximum information gain.
"He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."
See you on the flip side...
(For the wanting the original paper, see: