Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Scientist: Tom Lehrer

This week we've got another mad scientist who isn't really mad, although, if you go around singing some of his lesser-known songs, people might think you are. We speak, of course, of Tom Lehrer, whose work you probably know from The Electric Company -- he's the guy who brought you the songs about "ly," "ou", "silent e," "n't," "sn," and so on. There's video of him in concert on YouTube, but I think the best introduction to his musical stylings is this flash animation of his song about the periodic table, or this slightly less elaborate one:

Oh, and if you're wondering why he's in the "mad scientist" column:

After graduating from Harvard with a B.A. in mathematics at the early age of 18 ("Everyone in college was young then because ... everyone who was not young was in the army"), he stayed on to receive his M.A. the following year. Content (for the moment) in the world of academia, Lehrer entered Harvard's doctoral program, where he would remain on and off for the next sixteen years. During that time, Lehrer held teaching appointments at MIT, Harvard and Wellesley, worked for several defense contractors (including the Atomic Energy Commission's nuclear laboratory in Los Alamos,) and, when convinced he could find a position "which did not involve shooting anybody or having anybody shoot at me," he joined the army for a two year stint.

Lehrer was also an inventor -- he apparently claims to have invented the jello shot. He tends to inspire passionate devotion (our very own Mangesh was a big fan in childhood), so consider yourself warned; if you click on all those links you're apt to start saying things like "Tom Lehrer is the most brilliant creative genius that America has produced in almost 200 years," which may in fact be true.

Bone Broth 101

Whether you drink it on its own or use it as stock, bone broth is the perfect recipe to master this winter. Special thanks to the Institute of Culinary Education

Why Can Parrots Talk and Other Birds Can't?

If you've ever seen a pirate movie (or had the privilege of listening to this avian-fronted metal band), you're aware that parrots have the gift of human-sounding gab. Their brains—not their beaks—might be behind the birds' ability to produce mock-human voices, the Sci Show's latest video explains below.

While parrots do have articulate tongues, they also appear to be hardwired to mimic other species, and to create new vocalizations. The only other birds that are capable of vocal learning are hummingbirds and songbirds. While examining the brains of these avians, researchers noted that their brains contain clusters of neurons, which they've dubbed song nuclei. Since other birds don't possess song nuclei, they think that these structures probably play a key role in vocal learning.

Parrots might be better at mimicry than hummingbirds and songbirds thanks to a variation in these neurons: a special shell layer that surrounds each one. Birds with larger shell regions appear to be better at imitating other creatures, although it's still unclear why.

Learn more about parrot speech below (after you're done jamming out to Hatebeak).


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