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The Super Bowl of Science

Are you a high school senior with an interest in math or science? Then you owe it to yourself to check out the Intel Science Talent Search, an annual competition for young scientists. Older readers like myself may know the program better by its former name, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search -- the competition has been running annually for 68 years, though Intel has sponsored it since 1999. In his 1991 speech to STS finalists, President George H.W. Bush famously called the competition the "Super Bowl of science."

STS winners get scholarships, a trip to Washington to network with other finalists (including a meet-and-greet that generally features the President, Vice President, and/or First Lady), laptops, and a chance to work directly with scientist mentors on their projects. This year's top winner (who received a $100,000 scholarship) was Erika DeBenedictis of New Mexico, whose project was described thusly:

Working at home and building on existing research, Erika developed an original optimizing search algorithm that discovers energy minimizing routes in specified regions of space and would allow a spacecraft to adjust its flight path en route. She believes her novel single-step method of repeated orbit refinement could work with essentially autonomous spacecraft, and may be a practical step forward in space exploration.

Not bad for a high school student, right? DeBenedictis's home page reads like a CV already.

Here's the "highlight reel" from this year's awards ceremony:

After the jump: updates on past winners, and a bit more about the history of the competition.

What Past Winners Have Done

Many STS winners have gone on to illustrious careers in science. 1950 finalist Sheldon Glashow, best known for predicting the charm quark and creating the first grand unified theory, went on to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. You can see him in this adorable slideshow of the STS through the years. According to Intel, "Seven have gone on to win the Nobel Prize; others have been awarded the Fields Medal, the National Medal of Science, and the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship." The STS has also been called the "Baby Nobels," and for good reason -- it's an incubator for young scientists, and has awarded nearly $4 million in scholarships over its roughly seven-decade history.

Intel has also published a nice by the numbers comparison, which includes these fun stats:

2 - Number of 2009 Intel STS finalists who are varsity athletes

6 - Number of 2009 Intel STS finalists with perfect SAT scores

10 - Number of MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grants awarded to Science Talent Search finalists

70 - Percentage of Science Talent Search finalists who go on to complete an M.D. or Ph.D.

History of the STS

Founded in 1942 in partnership with Westinghouse, the STS is the most prestigious science competition for high schoolers in the US. The Society for Science & the Public gives us some perspective on the scope of this competition:

Over six decades, more than 130,000 students from U.S. high schools in all 50 states and territories have completed independent science research projects and submitted entries. Each completed entry consists of a written description of the student's independent research, plus an entry form that elicits evidence of the student's excellence and accomplishments. Over 2,600 Finalists have received more than $3.8 million in awards to support their college educations, and 18,000 Semifinalists have received millions more.

Here's a video slideshow about the STS, going back to 1942. Lots of US Presidents show up here, including Eisenhower, Nixon (when he was a congressman), Obama, and more. Bonus points for the shot near the end showing STS finalists at the Albert Einstein Memorial at the National Academy of Sciences (sadly, Einstein's statue is not sticking its tongue out).

How to Enter

Check out the Compete in the Intel Science Talent Search page for more info, or try the STS homepage for more, including sample submission forms for 2010. While 2010's competition is closed, 2011 is wide open....

If you're not in high school, check out this competition for middle schoolers. It appears to be on hold at the moment, seeking a sponsor, but the site suggests a possible restart in 2011.

For much more: check out the Society for Science & the Public's YouTube channel.

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Why Can Parrots Talk and Other Birds Can't?
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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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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

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