Scientists in Berlin have managed to capture the first-ever footage of what is known as a space-time crystal. Also known as an STC or “time crystal” for short, these are pulsations in space-time that were originally created in a laboratory setting in 2016.
Think of what you’re seeing as if it were the first time someone managed to take a video of one of the states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. For us now that’s not particularly impressive, but when gas was first visibly observed, it was likely groundbreaking.
The video above shows a time crystal created from magnon, which are quasiparticles associated with the spin-wave of electrons within a magnetic material. The time crystal was built from magnons in a magnetic strip with a microscopic antenna attached to it. The antenna was used to generate an oscillating magnetic field using radio frequency, and the lines fading in and out in the video show the absorption of the X-ray beams by that magnetic wavelength structure. The darker regions show where more X-rays were absorbed which allowed the visualization of periodic oscillation of both time and space.
“It is a little bit confusing, but we induce the magnons in the strip electrically with an antenna on top of the structure,” Nick Trager, a doctoral student who co-led the research, said to Vice. “Thus, everything you can see in this video is a periodic magnetization pattern (consisting of magnons), which follows a space-time periodic motion.”
Time crystals are a phase of matter and are most easily explained by comparing them to regular, physical crystals. Just like a crystal is made of repeating patterns of atomic lattices, a time crystal repeats the same patterns in time. As explained by Motherboard and translated into layman’s terms by Vice, practically-speaking time crystals exhibit what is called “temporal periodicity” in which they oscillate between one configuration and another predictably.
The concept of time crystals had only existed on paper when they were first theorized in 2012. When they were first observed four years later, it was a giant discovery. But as Motherboard puts it below, most of the population won’t find it relevant yet.
Time crystals are an insanely complicated subject and not particularly relevant to 99 percent of the population (at least for now), which is probably why you haven’t heard much about them, despite the magnitude of this scientific breakthrough.
Even after hours of discussing the concept with experts, the author of the detailed time crystal explainer says he was only able to grasp a rudimentary understanding of the concept. So why does any of this matter? Because while they are extremely difficult to explain and even harder to understand, scientists turned a theory into reality and actually discovered an entirely new phase of matter, one that is wholly different from what we usually study as solids, liquids, and gasses.
Time crystals are so new that while there is theorized potential for what they can be used for, even those who are experts on them aren’t sure of their full potential yet.
It’s a lot to take in, but seeing first-ever footage of a new state of matter is interesting in itself, and seeing scientists talk excitedly about the potential of this kind of discovery is infectious. It may not be easily understood, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.