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The year in science: A quantum leap

A tiny vibrating device, measuring as long as a human hair is wide, won recognition from the journal Science as the first quantum machine and the biggest scientific breakthrough of 2010.

Synthetic genomes and Neanderthals are cool, but the journal Science went with something different as the year's top scientific breakthrough: the world's first quantum machine.

It's not much to look at. In fact, you can barely see it with the naked eye, and it doesn't work unless it's cooled down to just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. But when researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara created their tiny vibrating "springboard," that represented "the first time that scientists have demonstrated quantum effects in the motion of a human-made object," said Adrian Cho, a news writer for Science.

"On a conceptual level, that's cool because it extends quantum mechanics into a whole new realm," he said. "On a practical level, it opens up a variety of possibilities ranging from new experiments that meld quantum control over light, electrical currents and motion to, perhaps someday, tests of the bounds of quantum mechanics and our sense of reality."

One of the more bizarre principles of quantum mechanics is that something can be in two states simultaneously: both on and off, both 1 and 0. Under just the right conditions, UCSB's aluminum nitride oscillator took on a single quantum of motion, so that it vibrated both a little and a lot at the same time.

UCSB's Aaron O'Connell, John Martinis and Andrew Cleland reported their results in March in the journal Nature. At the time, Cleland told me that "we were just trying to demonstrate quantum effects in a big thing."

"But a possible application would be if you try to detect these acoustic vibrations at the quantum level," he said. "You could do it with this. You could use it as a quantum microphone, or a quantum loudspeaker." Such devices might also be used to read out the results of a quantum computer's calculations.

But don't expect Schrodinger's dead-and-alive quantum cat-in-a-box to be available for holiday giving anytime soon: The bigger and more complex the object, the more it has to be chilled to cut down on the "noise" of vibrating atoms. To see quantum effects in a typical tuning fork, for example, you'd have to cool it down to a millionth of a degree above absolute zero. That's way colder than the lowest temperatures seen in outer space.

Here are the other nine breakthroughs on Science's top-ten list for 2010:

  • Synthetic biology: For the first time, researchers created a synthetic genome and used it to transform the identity of a bacterium. The genome replaced the microbe's DNA so that it produced a new set of proteins. It would be wrong to call this "artificial life," but the achievement was a wakeup call for scientists and ethicists. A congressional hearing on the topic was conducted earlier this year, and just today, the White House's bioethics panel called for more federal oversight of such research. (Here's the full report and a FAQ file.)
  • Neanderthal genome: Researchers sequenced the Neanderthal genome from the bones of three females who lived in Croatia sometime between 38,000 and 44,000 years ago. The preliminary findings suggested that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred to a small extent, and that non-Africans carry "a little bit" of genetic code from our now-extinct hominid cousins.
  • HIV prevention: Two HIV prevention trials using different strategies reported unequivocal success, Science said. One trial involved a vaginal gel that contains the anti-HIV drug tenofovir, and the other trial involved a pill containing a combination of antiretroviral drugs.
  • Exome sequencing: By sequencing the tiny portion of the human genome that actually codes for proteins — known as the exome — researchers who study rare diseases caused by a single flawed gene could identify specific mutations underlying at least a dozen diseases, including Kabuki syndrome. Exome studies were listed as one of the trends to watch in Science's year-end roundup for 2009.
  • Molecular dynamics simulations: Researchers harnessed the power of one of the world's most powerful computers, code-named Anton, to track the motions of atoms in a small, folding protein for a length of time 100 times longer than any previous efforts.
  • Quantum simulator: While the folks at UCSB built a quantum-mechanical gizmo, other researchers used artificial crystals to simulate quantum-scale effects. Spots of laser light play the role of ions, and atoms trapped in the light stand in for electrons. Science says the devices can provide quick answers to theoretical problems in condensed-matter physics, and may eventually solve some of the mysteries surrounding superconductivity.
  • Next-gen genomics: Large-scale genome analysis efforts such as the 1,000 Genomes Project are providing new insights into the genetic variations behind disease and evolutionary change. 
  • RNA reprogramming: Scientists are fine-tuning methods to reprogram ordinary cells so that they take on the magical transformative properties of embryonic stem cells, and this year they found a way to do that using synthetic RNA. The new technique is twice as fast, 100 times as efficient and potentially safer for therapeutic use than previous methods.
  • Return of the rat: Mice rule the world of lab animals, in part because researchers can tweak their genes to create "knockout mice" for study. But in some cases, lab rats would work better. This year there were a number of advances clearing the way for the creation of "knockout rats."

Science's editors said the "areas to watch" in 2011 include:

  • Large Hadron Collider: "The first really interesting results" from Europe's supercollider are likely to focus not on the Higgs boson or supersymmetric particles, but on the asymmetry between matter and antimatter, as seen by the LHCb detector.
  • Adaptation genes: New techniques such as RAD tag sequencing could help scientists learn which genes help a wide variety of organisms, ranging from bacteria to butterflies, thrive in the natural world.
  • Laser fusion: The National Ignition Facility could well achieve a milestone in energy research: an ignited fusion burn.
  • Hammering viruses: Broadly neutralizing antibodies, or bNAbs, could target a wide range of viral variants. Researchers have made headway in identifying bNAbs to take aim at HIV and flu viruses in animals.
  • Electric cars: Plug-in electric vehicles — including Nissan's Leaf, Chevy's Volt and Toyota's new-model Prius — are set to go mainstream.
  • Malaria shots: Results from a large-scale Phase III trial of a malaria vaccine in Africa are due to be announced late next year.

Science is also presenting a series of reports looking back at "Insights of the Decade." For more about the breakthroughs (and breakdowns) of the year and the decade, check out the journal's year-end package.

Next week, we'll be asking you to participate in our own "Weird Science Awards" contest, so if you'd like to pass along your nominations for the Weirdies of 2011, please submit them in your comments below.

This posting was last updated at 3:30 p.m. ET ... in part to correct a reference to a temperature "below absolute zero." Sorry about that. At least the error provided an opportunity for a political joke (see below).

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