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Google’s quantum group helps find a new state of matter: time crystals

August 2, 2021, 10:52 PM UTC

Google’s quantum group is on a roll.

Two years ago, the Google crew made its historic “quantum supremacy” announcement, a huge milestone in computing (that had a little pushback from IBM). Now the group is adding to its list of accomplishments.

On Friday, the Google team and a group of scientists from Stanford, Princeton, and other universities, published a draft article describing their demonstration of a bizarre new phase of matter. The name? A “time crystal.”

While time crystals might sound like the MacGuffin in a Dr. Who episode, it’s actually a physics concept first theorized in 2012. In classical phases of matter — solid, liquid, and gas (plus plasma for the go-getters) — molecules reach thermal equilibria, meaning heat flow eventually stabilizes in a system. In contrast, time crystals remain in flux. They repeatedly cycle through configurations even as they expend no energy.

That might sound a little complicated—let’s simplify it. Usually, when things are in their lowest-energy state, they stop moving. Time crystals act differently; they keep shapeshifting — like little perpetual motion machines. It’s a genuinely shocking scientific demonstration.

Google and its collaborators aren’t the first to show off a time crystal. Researchers at the University of Maryland said they created a short-lived one at the end of last year. Just a month ago, on July 5, another team of physicists at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands demonstrated an example, too. But Google showed the best results to date, with fewer limitations than the predecessors.

It’s hard to know what the future holds based on this early experiment. In 1944, the quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger conjectured in his book What is Life? that the fundamental unit of genetics might be an “aperiodic crystal” — a spot-on hypothesis that we know now as DNA. Fast forward three-quarters of a century and humans are reprogramming their bodies with CRISPR gene-editing techniques and mRNA vaccines.

Could time crystals lead to new applications? As Roderich Moessner, a Max Planck Institute director and co-author of the Google paper, put it in an interview with Quanta Magazine, “Something that’s as stable as this is unusual, and special things become useful.”

Time will tell.

Robert Hackett
@rhhackett
robert.hackett@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Don't forget your masks. With the the Delta variant spreading, cities and companies across the country are once again requiring masks. San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Monday that the city will be requiring masks in indoor public settings. New York is recommending masks indoors. And Facebook has said it will be mandating that employees wear masks in the office — vaccinated or not. 

Square drops $29 billion on BNPL. At $29 billion, Jack Dorsey's other company has struck its largest purchase ever for Australia's Afterpay. The deal marks Square's entrance into the increasingly popular arena of "buy now, pay later," in which merchants offer their customers the ability to finance purchases on couches, button-down shirts and rowing machines. BNPL has become the latest financial innovation land grab, with Wall Street and fintechs alike jumping in. Apple and Goldman Sachs are working on an offering that would be linked to Apple Pay. Other fintechs in the space include Klarna, Affirm, and Quadpay. Square shares jumped more than 10% following the deal's announcement. 

Hello payday. Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine is selling itself to a venture backed by private-equity giant Blackstone in a reported $900 million deal. The acquisition puts Hello Sunshine, whose titles include "The Morning Show," at the center of a new media venture that is being led by the always busy former Disney executives Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs. Its goal? To create an independent company that can license its content to any of the scores of streaming services hungry for content.  

Google Tensor. Alphabet's Google is venturing into the chip market on its own. The tech giant said Monday that it will build its own smartphone processor called Google Tensor rather than use those of Qualcomm to help fuel its upcoming Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro phones. The move follows a similar one from Apple announced last fall to build its own rather than use Intel chips.

FTC loses economist in Facebook battle. Carl Shapiro, a professor and economist at the University of California-Berkeley who was enlisted by the Federal Trade Commission to help in its battle against Facebook, has left the effort, according to Politico. The exact reasons why Shapiro left remain unclear, but the departure represents the latest challenge the regulator has to deal with just weeks before it has to decide whether it will file a new version of its lawsuit. 

$150 billion. That's how much money was invested in U.S. startups in the first half of 2021, representing more than what was raised in every year before 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, citing a PitchBook report. Hedge funds, pensions and sovereign-wealth groups were some of the most active investors in the six-month stretch, helping to fund some 42% of startup financing deals. 

YouTube Lite. YouTube has begun offering some users in Europe a cheaper subscription offering as a pilot for a broader roll out. Known as Premium Lite, the ad-free subscription tier would go for the local-market equivalent of €6.99 a month, or roughly $8.30. Unlike YouTube's current €11.99 per month subscription, though, the lite alternative will not offer users the same experience such as ad-free music listening, or offline downloads. 

This edition of Data Sheet comes courtesy of Declan Harty.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Crypto apes are the next Disney? Last week, Fortune unveiled the NFTy 50, a ranking of the who's who—or in some cases the what's what—of the digital collectible world. And at No. 41 stood the Bored Ape Yacht Club, an NFT collective created by Yuga Labs that was the subject of a recent profile in The New Yorker.

The Bored Ape Yacht Club, founded by a couple of self-described "literary nerds," revolves around 10,000 NFTs featuring bored apes decked in tie-dyed shirts, half-robot bored apes, and bored apes with laser eyes. It has become one of the crypto world's hottest collectives, with holders gaining access to a range of amenities, including access to the Yacht Club's "Bathroom," a digital graffiti wall of sorts; the Kennel Club, where Bored Ape NFT owners can adopt an NFT doggo; and, perhaps most interestingly, the commercial rights to their apes — begging the question of what role such groups will play in the future. 

From the article:

For most brands that produce culture, whether Supreme streetwear, Marvel superheroes, or pop music, letting intellectual property circulate freely is verboten; exclusivity is the business model. The Bored Ape Yacht Club founders, by contrast, see their openness as an asset. "Anything that people create with their apes only grows the brand," Goner said. Just as Silicon Valley startups obsess over software that is "scalable," growing exponentially to serve more users, N.F.T. clubs aim for scalable culture; like open-source software, their cultural creations can expand organically through the efforts of many users while remaining recognizable, resulting in a kind of user-generated mythology. Dom Hofmann, the co-founder of the now defunct social network Vine and the creator of an N.F.T. club project called Blitmap, told me, "It's taking a gamble on the idea that, in aggregate and over time, the fans might know what's best for the universe that they care about." Austin, the investor, envisioned Bored Ape Yacht Club as a potential "decentralized Disney" of the future.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

How Toyota kept making cars when the chips were down by Eamon Barrett

Don't buy the 'big data' hype, says cofounder of Google Brain by Nicholas Gordon

Aramco douses cold oil on Bitcoin advocates' hopes it will start mining crypto by Christiaan Hetzner

The fastest Indian tech startup to reach unicorn status is now eyeing an IPO by Biman Mukherji

The nit in Square's acquisition of Afterpay by Lucinda Shen

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BEFORE YOU GO

Motivation Monday. Finding the drive to get through the day can be tough. Even as we've slowly emerged out of our pandemic bubbles, the combination of the Delta variant, a likely worse hurricane season ahead, and millions now facing eviction offers up little optimism about the weeks ahead. So, to kick things off this week, we're featuring this piece from last week published in The New York Times on one writer's efforts to figure out how to get back on the motivation train. The short of it? Find a small way to reward your work, understand your values, talk to people, and be kind to yourself. 

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