Science: breathroughs of the year and decade

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    Science's Breakthrough of the Year: The First Quantum Machine

    ScienceDaily (Dec. 17, 2010) — Until this year, all human-made
    objects have moved according to the laws of classical mechanics.
    Back in March, however, a group of researchers designed a gadget
    that moves in ways that can only be described by quantum mechanics
    -- the set of rules that governs the behavior of tiny things like
    molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. In recognition of the
    conceptual ground their experiment breaks, the ingenuity behind
    it and its many potential applications, Science has called this
    discovery the most significant scientific advance of 2010.

    Physicists Andrew Cleland and John Martinis from the University
    of California at Santa Barbara and their colleagues designed the
    machine -- a tiny metal paddle of semiconductor, visible to the
    naked eye -- and coaxed it into dancing with a quantum groove.
    First, they cooled the paddle until it reached its "ground state,"
    or the lowest energy state permitted by the laws of quantum mechan-
    ics (a goal long-sought by physicists). Then they raised the
    widget's energy by a single quantum to produce a purely quantum-
    mechanical state of motion. They even managed to put the gadget
    in both states at once, so that it literally vibrated a little
    and a lot at the same time -- a bizarre phenomenon allowed by
    the weird rules of quantum mechanics.

    Science and its publisher, AAAS, the nonprofit science society,
    have recognized this first quantum machine as the 2010 Break-
    through of the Year. They have also compiled nine other important
    scientific accomplishments from this past year into a top ten list,
    appearing in a special news feature in the journal's 17 December
    2010 issue. Additionally, Science news writers and editors have
    chosen to spotlight 10 "Insights of the Decade" that have trans-
    formed the landscape of science in the 21st Century.

    "This year's Breakthrough of the Year represents 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. On a practical level,
    it opens up a variety of possibilities ranging from new experi-
    ments 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."

    The quantum machine proves that the principles of quantum
    mechanics can apply to the motion of macroscopic objects, as
    well as atomic and subatomic particles. It provides the key
    first step toward gaining complete control over an object's
    vibrations at the quantum level. Such control over the motion
    of an engineered device should allow scientists to manipulate
    those minuscule movements, much as they now control electrical
    currents and particles of light. In turn, that capability may
    lead to new devices to control the quantum states of light,
    ultra-sensitive force detectors and, ultimately, investigations
    into the bounds of quantum mechanics and our sense of reality.
    (This last grand goal might be achieved by trying to put a macro-
    scopic object in a state in which it's literally in two slightly
    different places at the same time -- an experiment that might re-
    veal precisely why something as big as a human can't be in two
    places at the same time.)

    "Mind you, physicists still haven't achieved a two-places-at-once
    state with a tiny object like this one," said Cho. "But now that
    they have reached the simplest state of quantum motion, it seems
    a whole lot more obtainable -- more like a matter of 'when' than
    'if.'"

    Science's list of the nine other groundbreaking achievements from
    2010 follows.

    Synthetic Biology: In a defining moment for biology and biotech-
    nology, researchers built a synthetic genome and used it to tran-
    sform the identity of a bacterium. The genome replaced the bacter-
    ium's DNA so that it produced a new set of proteins -- an achieve-
    ment that prompted a Congressional hearing on synthetic biology.
    In the future, researchers envision synthetic genomes that are
    custom-built to generate biofuels, pharmaceuticals or other useful
    chemicals.

    Neandertal Genome: Researchers sequenced the Neandertal genome
    from the bones of three female Neandertals who lived in Croatia
    sometime between 38,000 and 44,000 years ago. New methods of se-
    quencing degraded fragments of DNA allowed scientists to make the
    first direct comparisons between the modern human genome and that
    of our Neandertal ancestors.

    HIV Prophylaxis: Two HIV prevention trials of different, novel
    strategies reported unequivocal success: A vaginal gel that contains
    the anti-HIV drug tenofovir reduced HIV infections in women by 39
    percent and an oral pre-exposure prophylaxis led to 43.8 fewer HIV
    infections in a group of men and transgender women who have sex with
    men.

    Exome Sequencing/Rare Disease Genes: By sequencing just the exons of
    a genome, or the tiny portion that actually codes for proteins, re-
    searchers who study rare inherited diseases caused by a single, flawed
    gene were able to identify specific mutations underlying at least a
    dozen diseases.

    Molecular Dynamics Simulations: Simulating the gyrations that proteins
    make as they fold has been a combinatorial nightmare. Now, researchers
    have harnessed the power of one of the world's most powerful computers
    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: To describe what they see in the lab, physicists
    cook up theories based on equations. Those equations can be fiendishly
    hard to solve. This year, though, researchers found a short-cut by mak-
    ing quantum simulators -- artificial crystals in which spots of laser
    light play the role of ions and atoms trapped in the light stand in for
    electrons. The devices provide quick answers to theoretical problems
    in condensed matter physics and they might eventually help solve mys-
    teries such as superconductivity.

    Next-Generation Genomics: Faster and cheaper sequencing technologies
    are enabling very large-scale studies of both ancient and modern DNA.
    The 1,000 Genomes Project, for example, has already identified much
    of the genome variation that makes us uniquely human -- and other pro-
    jects in the works are set to reveal much more of the genome's func-
    tion.

    RNA Reprogramming: Reprogramming cells -- turning back their develop-
    mental clocks to make them behave like unspecialized "stem cells" in
    an embryo -- has become a standard lab technique for studying diseases
    and development. This year, researchers found a way to do it using
    synthetic RNA. Compared with previous methods, the new technique is
    twice as fast, 100 times as efficient and potentially safer for thera-
    peutic use.

    The Return of the Rat: Mice rule the world of laboratory animals, but
    for many purposes researchers would rather use rats. Rats are easier
    to work with and anatomically more similar to human beings; their big
    drawback is that methods used to make "knockout mice" -- animals
    tailored for research by having specific genes precisely disabled --
    don't work for rats. A flurry of research this year, however, promises
    to bring "knockout rats" to labs in a big way.

    Finally, to celebrate the end of the current decade, Science news re-
    porters and editors have taken a step back from their weekly reporting
    to take a broader look at 10 of the scientific insights that have
    changed the face of science since the dawn of the new millennium. A
    list of these 10 "Insights of the Decade" follows.

    The Dark Genome: Genes used to get all the glory. Now, however, re-
    searchers recognize that these protein-coding regions of the genome
    account for just 1.5 percent of the whole. The rest of the genome,
    including small coding and non-coding RNAs -- previously written off
    as "junk" -- is proving to be just as important as the genes.

    Precision Cosmology: Over the past decade, researchers have deduced a
    very precise recipe for the content of the universe, which consists of
    ordinary matter, dark matter and dark energy; as well as instructions
    for putting it all together. These advances have transformed cosmology
    into a precision science with a standard theory that now leaves very
    little wiggle room for other ideas.

    Ancient Biomolecules: The realization that "biomolecules" like ancient
    DNA and collagen can survive for tens of thousands of years and provide
    important information about long-dead plants, animals and humans has
    provided a boon for paleontology. Analysis of these tiny time machines
    can now reveal anatomical adaptations that skeletal evidence simply
    can't provide, such as the color of a dinosaur's feathers or how woolly
    mammoths withstood the cold.

    Water on Mars: Half a dozen missions to Mars over the past decade have
    provided clear evidence that the Red Planet once harbored enough water
    -- either on it or just inside it -- to alter rock formations and, pos-
    sibly, sustain life. This Martian water was probably present around the
    time that life was beginning to appear on Earth, but there is still
    enough moisture on Mars today to encourage scientists seeking living,
    breathing microbes.

    Reprogramming Cells: During the past decade, the notion that develop-
    ment is a one-way street has been turned on its head. Now, researchers
    have figured out how to "reprogram" fully developed cells into so-called
    pluripotent cells that regain their potential to become any type of cell
    in the body. This technique has already been used to make cell lines
    from patients with rare diseases, but ultimately, scientists hope to
    grow genetically matched replacement cells, tissues and organs.

    The Microbiome: A major shift in the way we view the microbes and viruses
    that call the human body home has led researchers to the concept of the
    microbiome -- or the collective genomes of the host and the other crea-
    tures that live on or inside it. Since 90 percent of the cells in our
    bodies are actually microbial, scientists are beginning to understand
    how significantly microbial genes can affect how much energy we absorb
    from our foods and how our immune systems respond to infections.

    Exoplanets: In the year 2000, researchers were aware of just 26 planets
    outside our solar system. By 2010, that number had jumped to 502 -- and
    still counting. With emerging technologies, astronomers expect to find
    abundant Earth-like planets in the universe. But for now, the sizes and
    orbits of larger planets already discovered are revolutionizing scien-
    tists' understanding of how planetary systems form and evolve.

    Inflammation: Not long ago, inflammation was known as the simple side-
    kick to our healing machinery, briefly setting in to help immune cells
    rebuild tissue damage caused by trauma or infection. Today, however, re-
    searchers believe that inflammation is also a driving force behind the
    chronic diseases that will eventually kill nearly all of us, including
    cancer, Alzheimer's disease, atherosclerosis, diabetes and obesity.

    Metamaterials: By synthesizing materials with unconventional and tunable
    optical properties, physicists and engineers have pioneered new ways to
    guide and manipulate light, creating lenses that defy the fundamental
    limits on resolution. They've even begun constructing "cloaks" that can
    make an object invisible.

    Climate Change: Over the past decade, researchers have solidified some
    fundamental facts surrounding global climate change: The world is warm-
    ing, humans are behind the warming and the natural processes of the
    Earth are not likely to slow that warming. But, the next 10 years will
    determine how scientists and policymakers proceed with this vital infor-
    mation.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101216142513.htm

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