Science Magazine has named the work of a team at UCSB directed by Andrew Cleland and John Martinis as their scientific breakthrough of the year for 2010. Their achievement: the demonstration of a "quantum machine". I'm writing about this for two reasons. First, it is extremely cool stuff that has a nano+condensed matter focus. Second, this article and this one in the media have so many things wrong with them that I don't even know where to begin, and upon reading them I felt compelled to try to give a better explanation of this impressive work.
One of the main points of quantum mechanics is that systems tend to take in or emit energy in "quanta" (chunks of a certain size) rather than in any old amount. This quantization is the reason for the observation of spectral lines, and mathematically is rather analogous to the fact that a guitar string can ring at a discrete set of harmonics and not any arbitrary frequency. The idea that a quantum system at low energies can have a very small number of states each corresponding to a certain specific energy is familiar (in slightly different language) to every high school chemistry student who has seen s, p, and d orbitals and talked about the Bohr model of the atom. The quantization of energy shows up not just in the case of electronic transitions (that we've discussed so far), but also in mechanical motion. Vibrations in quantum mechanics are quantized - in quantum mechanics, a perfect ball-on-a-spring mechanical oscillator with some mechanical frequency can only emit or absorb energy in amounts of size hf, where h is Planck's constant. Furthermore, there is some lowest energy allowed state of the oscillator called the "ground state". Again, this is all old news, and such vibrational quantization is clear as a bell in many spectroscopy techniques (infrared absorption; Raman spectroscopy).
The first remarkable thing done by the UCSB team is to manufacture a mechanical resonator containing millions of atoms, and to put that whole object into its quantum ground state (by cooling it so that the thermal energy scale is much smaller than hf for that resonator). In fact, that's the comparatively easy part. The second (and really) remarkable thing that the UCSB team did was to confirm experimentally that the resonator really was in its ground state, and to deliberately add and take away single quanta of energy from the resonator. This is very challenging to do, because quantum states can be quite delicate - it's very easy to have your measurement setup mess with the quantum system you're trying to study!
What is the point? Well, on the basic science side, it's of fundamental interest to understand just how complicated many particle systems behave when they are placed in highly quantum situations. That's where much of the "spookiness" of quantum physics lurks. On the practical side, the tools developed to do these kinds of experiments are one way that people like Martinis hope to build quantum computers. I strongly encourage you to watch the video on the Science webpage (should be free access w/ registration); it's a thorough discussion of this impressive achievement.