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Tonight: "Prophets of Science Fiction" Starts

Set your DVRs for "Prophets of Science Fiction" starting tonight (November 9, 2011) at 10pm EST/PST on The Science Channel.

Tonight the Science Channel debuts a new series about science fiction masters, hosted by Ridley Scott (director of Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, etc.). The eight-part series focuses on past masters of sci-fi literature, and how their foreward-looking notions have affected modern science. The first episode is about Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein), and talks about notions of creating life. But the episode also talks extensively about Shelley's personal story (without spoiling it, let's say she had a lot of issues with creating life herself). This is an interesting series for nerds because it's both about history (specifically, the stories behind major sci-fi writers and their work) and about science (cutting-edge stuff that is arguably sorta kinda related to the sci-fi). While some of the science is fairly pedestrian (like mapping the human genome), the history of the writers may not be as well-known, and that keeps things lively. Although I've only seen the Mary Shelley episode, the series looks solid, and I'm looking forward to it. Future episodes will feature: H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein, and George Lucas.

Here's a good intro video -- it doesn't show much actual footage from the show, but gives a sense of what the series is all about:

For more info on the series, including Discovery's site.

Blogger disclosure: I was not specially compensated for writing this review. I'm a big fan of Ridley Scott, so I thought I'd check it out...and hey, I actually learned some stuff about Mary Shelley!

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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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