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When the ancient Incas wanted to archive tax and census records, they used a device made up of a number of strings called a quipu, which encoded the data in knots. Fast-forward several hundred years, and physicists are on their way to developing a far more sophisticated modern equivalent. Their “quipu” is a new phase of matter created within a quantum computer, their strings are atoms, and the knots are generated by patterns of laser pulses that effectively open up a second dimension of time.

This isn’t quite as incomprehensible as it first appears. The new phase is one of many within a family of so-called topological phases, which were first identified in the 1980s. These materials display order not on the basis of how their constituents are arranged—like the regular spacing of atoms in a crystal—but on their dynamic motions and interactions. Creating a new topological phase—that is, a new “phase of matter”—is as simple as applying novel combinations of electromagnetic fields and laser pulses to bring order or “symmetry” to the motions and states of a substance’s atoms. Such symmetries can exist in time rather than space, for example in induced repetitive motions. Time symmetries can be difficult to see directly but can be revealed mathematically by imagining the real-world material as a lower-dimensional projection from a hypothetical higher-dimensional space, similar to how a two-dimensional hologram is a lower-dimensional projection of a three-dimensional object. In the case of this newly created phase, which manifests in a strand of ions (electrically charged atoms), its symmetries can be discerned by considering it as a material that exists in higher-dimensional reality with two time dimensions.

“It is very exciting to see this unusual phase of matter realized in an actual experiment, especially because the mathematical description is based on a theoretical ‘extra’ time dimension,” says team member Philipp Dumitrescu, who was at the Flatiron Institute in New York City when the experiments were carried out. A paper describing the work was published in Nature on July 20.

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