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NOVA: The Fabric of the Cosmos

NOVA's "The Fabric of the Cosmos" premieres tonight, November 2, at 9pm ET/PT on most PBS stations. Recommended for: families who aren't quite sure what relativity is, but want to find out.

Starting tonight, enjoy the four-hour series The Fabric of the Cosmos, based on physicist Brian Greene's breakthrough book. I've previewed the first episode of the show, and found it a worthy companion to the book, especially for those who aren't particularly up on physics in general: do you know what Einstein's theory of relativity really is? How about the Higgs Field (and that elusive Higgs boson) -- do you know what that actually is? How about dark energy, or the notion that the universe might be a holographic projection of a 2D version of itself? All of these are discussed in the first episode (airing tonight), which deals with the nature of "space" -- what is space, when you remove all the "stuff" (atoms and such), and how does it work? In a sense, the show is sort of "Physics for Dummies" in that it presents easily understandable metaphors for all of these questions (except the hologram thing, which still seems bonkers), and helps you to understand how physicists have thought about space over hundreds of years.

The only downside to the show is Brian Greene himself, as a host -- he doesn't quite have the spark of a Carl Sagan or a Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's good at explaining what he's talking about (and indeed he is accessible to a fault -- he often repeats simple concepts), but somehow the first hour seems a little flat -- at times I found myself wondering who the audience was supposed to be, because the show mixed extremely simple ideas (like "is space empty or not") with mind-blowingly complex ones (the universe is a hologram, projected from a 2D version of itself). In the middle there is a very easy-to-follow discussion of what Einstein really contributed to physics, and a good discussion of why space, time, and the speed of light are fundamentally kind of weird. The trick is, at times the material appears pointed at middle school students, at others it's very heady stuff.

Gather the Family Around

Because of this mixed-audience issue, I think this series makes sense for families. I can see some elementary school kids engaging with this material, though middle and high school ages seem more appropriate. There is nothing risque or dangerous in the material, and it's presented in a very friendly, engaging format. The production value is insanely high (lots of computer graphics and 3D modeling, even in static interview shots), which should make even the boring bits (or stuff that's over young kids' heads) fun to watch. And you might walk away saying, "Huh, I kinda actually do get why Einstein was a big deal." Seems worth your time, eh? Here's another video of Brian Greene introducing the series:

The first episode airs tonight, and subsequent episodes air weekly. There's more information on the Fabric of Cosmos website.

Blogger disclosure: I wasn't specially compensated to do this review. I'm a lifelong fan of NOVA, though!

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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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