The top science stories of 2011, as selected by several science magazines, include two experiments and a famous computer, that relied on technology from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Physics World's top breakthrough of the year was an experiment that "shifted the morals of quantum measurement" by doing something previously thought to be impossible—tracking the paths of single particles of light (photons) passing through two closely spaced openings. Led by a University of Toronto physicist, the experiment used a NIST-made quantum dot as the source of single photons. The Physics World story can be found online and the NIST contribution is described at http://www.nist.gov/pml/newsletter/quantum_dot.cfm.
Science News and Physics Today highlighted experiments at the Atacama Cosmology Telescope in Chile that measured "gravitational lensing" of the cosmic microwave background and verified the existence of dark energy, believed to make up most of the universe and to drive its expansion. More than a dozen institutions collaborate on the research. The telescope camera relies on superconducting sensors based on a NIST design and superconducting amplifiers and electronics made at NIST. Gravitational lensing refers to distortions in the afterglow of the Big Bang caused by the gravitational force of matter distributed across the universe.
Physics Today editors selected the research as one of seven highlights of the most important and interesting news in physics and related sciences (link removed; no longer active). Science News included the work in its roundup of 2011 Science News of the Year, as one of 18 items in the Atom & Cosmos category (see "Dark Check" entry).
Several groups, including New Scientist, Discover magazine and National Public Radio, also cited one of the most-watched technology events of the year: the February 2011 victory of the IBM supercomputer Watson on the TV game show Jeopardy. IBM researchers have noted that Watson's roots are in the question answering (QA) systems developed by IBM for their participation in the NIST Text REtrieval Conference (TREC) QA track starting in 1999. See our story for news on the 21st Annual Text Retrieval Conference.