Peg has a PhD in neuroscience and has a mind like a cocker spaniel. New scientific questions are like squeaky toys. She makes her living consulting with university faculty members on the fine art of grantsmanship, writes fiction for fun, and considers herself a wetware hacker.

Quantum networking, Cambridge style.

Not content with a single bank transaction, The New Scientist is reporting that there’s a quantum cryptography network now running between Harvard and BBN Technologies. The two are connected with 10 Km of fiber optic cable and employ custom servers, making it very expensive. However, BBN is the company that created the use of @, among other things, so I expect the current Qnet will grow, and we’ll wonder how we ever lived without it.

Where regret lives

The role of the frontal lobes in the regulation of emotion-motivated behavior has long been known. Lobotomies are designed to cut off the forebrain, and the behavior change is dramatic (see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). A recent study published in the latest issue of Science used a gambling scenario to compare the behavior of normal people vs. those who had lesions in the orbitofrontal cortex.

Regret is an emotion related to “what if” – missed opportunities, mistakes. It is primarily associated with past events over which we had some level of control. The study compared “normal” people vs. those with lesions in the pre-frontal cortex in a gambling scenario. In one case, the subjects could choose the wager, and in the other, they could not. If normal subjects “lost” in a random gambling situation where they had no control, they felt no regret (nor much elation when they “won”). Where they had control, they reported experiencing negative and positive emotions associated with losing and winning, and changed their behavior to successfully promote winning.

People with lesions in the orbitofrontal cortex felt no different winning or losing in either scenario. They did not change their behavior, but placed the bets they could control without learning from past losses. They continued to lose. They had no sense of regret.

If wonder why some people never learn from their mistakes, there may be a wiring issue.

Camille et al., The Involvement of the Orbitofrontal Cortex in the Experience of Regret, Science 2004 304: 1167-1170

Here’s the abstract.

taking quantum theory to the bank

Nature magazine has an article on the first secure money transfer using entangled protons for quantum cryptography.

In last week’s trial, the entangled photons were created in a branch of the Bank of Austria in Vienna. One was sent to the city hall through a 1,450-metre-long fibreglass cable. The transfer took 90 seconds to complete; the money was then donated to Zeilinger’s lab.

That’s scary-cool.

ice-9, meet carbon-5

It isn’t as scary as Kurt Vonnegut’s imaginary ice-9, a form of solid water stable at ambient temperatures, but it’s just as wierd. According the the recent edition of Nature Science Updates, a fifth form of carbon has been created. Unlike the known forms – graphite, diamond, buckminsterfullerenes, and nanotubes – the new form is described as a nanofoam. The really interesting thing is that it’s magnetic.

Bush wants only friendly scientific opinions, example N+1

From my corner of “Tales from the Sausage Factory”: There’s been a lot of buzz in scientific circles about the Bush administration politicizing scientific policy. The recent issue of Nature reports that Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, an eminent molecular biologist, is being ousted from the US president’s Council on Bioethics. Blackburn disagrees with many of the administrations positions, including stem cell research. She has publicly stated her concerns that Council reports have distorted scientific findings.

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Mapping metabolic networks

Once again physicists have made the great biological leap. It took physicists to design and carry out the experiments that unlocked neurophysiology. Now a group of physicists, biophysicists and a pathologist have published a flux balance analysis of all the metabolic pathways in our favorite bacteria, E. coli.

In a time when genetic and protein data are being generated at a remarkable rate, few people in biology have been able to come out of reductionism and into systemic thinking. The sheer amount of data is daunting, and excluding the biophysicists, many biologists don’t use (or need) math harder than ANOVA or a two-tailed T test.

For those interested in more of the crunchy details, the abstract from PubMed is below.

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Heinlein predicts again

Starship Troopers was Robert Heinlein’s novel about future soldiers. One feature of the book, besides a very right-wing political stance, was the suits worn by the soldiers in battle. Just as inventors made real the remote controlled hands in Heinlein’s novella Waldo, the military is looking to nanotechnology and MIT to make battle suits.

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word for the day: neuroeconomics

I first heard the term neuroeconomics in a review of Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics by Paul W. Glimcher in the journal Acumen . (Another review can be found at My interest piqued by this new (to me) turn of phrase, a-Googling I did go, and turned up, a blog run by Kevin McCabe, who runs the Behavioral and Neuroeconomics laboratory at George Mason University.

Like the pure psychoanalysts who shuddered to find their theories applied to advertising, I find myself discomfited at seeing my own interest in how the brain works specifically applied to matters of money.