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WATCH: The World's Smallest Movie, Starring ... Atoms

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By Harold Maass

Hollywood loves to go big with movies. IBM scientists went small — very small. The company's researchers produced a short, stop-motion film to showcase their efforts to design the next generation of data storage, and they did it by manipulating individual atoms to create images of a boy playing with a ball and bouncing on a trampoline. The clip, called A Boy and His Atom, has been certified by Guinness World Records as the "Smallest Stop-Motion Film" ever. 

The scientists used a tiny needle on the tip of a two-ton scanning tunneling microscope, manipulated remotely by computer, to move carbon monoxide molecules around on a copper plate chilled to 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The frigid temperature "makes life simpler for us," says Andreas Heinrich, IBM's principal scientist for the project. "The atoms hold still. They would move around on their own at room temperature." Each frame involves an area measuring 45 by 25 nanometers (there are 25 million nanometers per inch), but the microscope magnifies the scene over 100 million times.

"This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world," Heinrich says. "The reason we made this was not to convey a scientific message directly, but to engage with students, to prompt them to ask questions." But that's just part of the reasoning. The techniques used to make the movie are similar to those IBM is working on to make data storage smaller as the world's digital archives expand. "As data creation and consumption continue to get bigger," Heinrich says, "data storage needs to get smaller, all the way down to the atomic level."

That sounds logical for computing, but how does this clip stand up as a film? The result is "the worst animated movie I've ever seen," jokes Richi Jennings at Computerworld. "Terrible production values, laughable plot, and awful soundtrack." It's mercifully short, but — sorry, IBM — "two thumbs down." But perhaps reviewers should cut the "IBM eggheads" behind this tiny flick some slack, says Mark Hearn at Engadget. They're just using "a playful spin on microcomputing" to show off the possibilities of thinking small, and in that, they succeeded. "Now that the atom's gone Hollywood, what's next, a molecular entourage?"

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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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