The tiny sliver of metal above, measuring as long as the human hair is wide, may be barely visible to the naked eye, but its implication to science is so staggering that it is hailed as the greatest scientific breakthrough of 2010.
Behold, 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.