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Science notes / Ornithology, physics

Song-and-dance show is really for the birds

Cool dance moves and a sweet tune have always been a good way to impress the ladies. Even for birds, it turns out.

In the May issue of National Geographic, Dan Koepel profiles the club-winged manakin, which does the moonwalk. The bird, native to Colombia and Ecuador, has a mating dance that involves complex maneuvers including rapid backward steps that recall Michael Jackson's signature move.

Its music is not exactly "Billie Jean," though. To attract females, male manakins bat their wings together at about 107 times per second, generating a whine that recalls a dentist's drill.

Researchers say the manakins have a feather on each wing that acts like a guitar pick, plucking other feathers and causing them to vibrate, creating the noise.

You can watch the manakin mating shtick at ngm.nationalgeographic.com.

-- Washington Post

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Antics might help us think outside the box

Not all scientists are nerds. In "Free Radicals," physicist Michael Brooks tries to dispel the notion that scientists are stuffy, pen-protector-polishing bookworms. According to Brooks, the inspiration for some of the major breakthroughs of our time came not via graduate school study sessions but from psychedelic drugs, mystical visions and other risky behaviors.

Take Kary Mullis, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering the mechanisms behind the reproduction of DNA strains. He credits his eureka moment to taking acid.

"I wasn't stoned on LSD, but my mind by then had learned how to get down there. I could sit on a DNA molecule and watch the polymerase go by," he explains during a BBC documentary.

Albert Einstein wrote in his autobiography that the inspiration for the special theory of relativity came from a vision he had experienced as a teenager, where he saw himself running next to a beam of light.

Brooks sees these antics as a way to think outside the box and, really, outside the norm for innovation. Scientists, he argues, were long regarded as extreme personalities, at least until after World War II and the development of the atom bomb, when they were given an image makeover.

-- Washington Post