Earth-born Timelords

Posted on March 2, 2012


Doctor Who TardisFor the worriers who may read Changed Times, first a little perspective on things.

Our own sun will last, as such stars do, another five to ten billion years before it finally gives up the ghost – or at least gives up the possibility of supporting a planetary lifeform such as our own. Even the Earth itself will probably last for anything up to five billion years before it gets too hot for comfort.

English: A simulated view of the entire observ...

Observable Universe

That means life in our local neighbourhood – the Solar System – should be able to last from start to end for something like ten to fifteen billion years. The chances of ourselves being around by then are not high and even if we were then we would no longer be anything much resembling what we now call “human.” If we are around then, in any form, we will have had a life-bearing solar system for roughly as long as the entire observable universe has existed up to the present day.

Given that sort of timescale, the very least of all possible concerns is that eventually at some remote distance in the future the whole universe will fade away in what is known as the “heat death” of everything. So it may come as a surprise to hear that already there is a survival plan being hatched by the Massechusetts Institute of Technology that would allow us to escape even the end of everything.

As even Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, the theoretical physicist leading the plan says, “It is not the most immediate problem in the world…” No kidding there, Frank!

Gold crystal structureHe came up with his idea while studying crystals; 3D structures with atoms arranged in regular repeating patterns which arise because they cost the least energy to maintain. If you add energy, the crystal structure will eventually break down, such as ice crystals melting, but eventually the energy will fade away and the crystal structure will reappear. Now, thanks to Einstein, physicists are used to thinking of time as a dimension in much the same way as space – so if you can have crystals in three dimensions, he wondered, why not in four?

To be stable in four dimensions a time-crystal would need to include objects that move in a cycle and return to the starting point at regular intervals, such as a planet orbiting a star. Not only that, but it would also need to be in the lowest energy state while it does it, so the “orbit” would carry on without any energy being added to keep it going. If that sounds dangerously close to the perpetual motion machine that is prohibited by the basic laws of thermodynamics, you would not be wrong as even Wilczek agrees.

But there is one state where it can happen – the flow of electrons in a superconductor, where resistance does not restrict their continued movement. To make a superconductor into a time crystal, the electrons would need to move in a cycle, not in a direct flow as they normally do. not only that, but they will need to be “bunched up” rather than to move in a smooth stream so that the overall charge repeats periodically over time.

English: Stephen Hawking giving a lecture for ...At a recent State of the universe symposium in Cambridge, UK to mark Stephen Hawking‘s 70th birthday, Wilczek showed a mathematical model of just such a looping charge in a theoretical time crystal. “It is,” he said, “perpetual motion but not in the forbidden sense.” Not only that, but he believes it should be possible to actually build such a device – though he does not know how difficult it would be.

By setting the cycles of electrons to be the ones and zeroes of a computer system, he thinks it would be possible to encode the personality of a human – or whatever we are by that time – into his superconducting time crystal. Not only that, but being based on a superconductor at close to absolute zero then as the universe got older, colder and darker the time crystal would actually be easier to maintain.

Should the universe be any form of multiverses or a cycle of boom and bust universes, then such a time crystal – including any personality contained in it – may be able to surive the ultimate end and pass into the new universe. It may all sound more than a little Doctor Who to you – as it does to us – and it is certainly a long way too far in the future for even the most paraoid of us to ever worry about.

Interesting though, isn’t it, what science can turn up these days…