Blog

My blog is called "The Philipendium", covering topics in the natural sciences, language, geography, and education. In each article I seek to provide original insights that you won't find anywhere else. More than 50 fascinating articles have appeared so far. Below are links to the most recent stories.

Trees and Carbon Dioxide: What Is the Truth?

We know that "trees absorb carbon dioxide", but what does this phrase actually mean? What really happens to the CO2? There are at least six popular mental models to explain the phenomenon, each of which is partly true, but none of these models provides the complete picture.

Read More

The Curious Connections Between Water and Energy

Try naming three ways in which water is connected to energy. Well, there are hydroelectric dams, steam engines, and hydraulic systems. Or think of photosynthesis, weather systems, and perspiration. In fact there is a huge number of fascinating connections between water and energy!

Read More

The 10 Most Repressive Countries in the World — and the 10 Most Free

What are the freest countries in the world? And what are the most repressed countries in the world? How would you go about ranking the countries of the world in terms of freedom and repression? What criteria would you use, and what data could you dig up that correlates with those criteria?

Read More

Are You And I Related?

It seems a simple question: Are you and I related? We need only a YES or NO answer. But if we trace our ancestry back far enough, then we are certain to find that we share a common ancestor. So now the question is HOW related are we, and how do we measure our degree of relatedness?

Read More

Tomatoes, Potatoes, and Peppers

What do tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers have in common? Of course all of them are food plants. All are members of the nightshade family. And all are New World plants that were first domesticated by Native Americans. Check out the amazing story of these three popular garden plants!

Read More

How I Designed the Most Successful Educational Computer Game of All Time

The Oregon Trail was created in two major design phases, one in 1971, and another in 1984-85. The first text-only version introduced 7 core concepts upon which all later versions were based. The 1985 product introduced another 21 key concepts that are now considered part of the original design.

Read More

Plants Don't Get Enough Credit

The plants of the world feel that they have not been getting enough credit. We can thank plants for the food we eat, the oxygen we breathe, and the fuels that we burn. We can thank plants for fire, agriculture, and steel. And don't forget honey. Bees don't actually make honey, they just collect it!

Read More

Snapshots of Prehistory: A Vacation in the Geologic Past

In this episode of The Philipendium, I describe an imaginary vacation in a flying time machine. I visit seven different periods of geologic history, checking to see what plants and animals I can find in each. At many of the stops, I find a surprising mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Read More

What Is Mint?

Do you like the flavor of mint? Perhaps chocolate-mint ice cream or mint-flavored toothpaste? We are all familiar with mint, but what exactly is it? How many different kinds of plants can be called "mint", and how do they differ from each other? Is there more than one kind of mint flavor?

Read More

There Is More to a Rainbow Than Meets the Eye

Is it possible to predict where in the sky a rainbow will appear? Is it possible to get really close to the end of a rainbow? In this episode of the Philipendium, we examine the hidden mysteries of rainbows — along with other natural phenomena that produce colors without pigments.

Read More

The Musings of a Chunk of Granite

I describe an encounter with a chunk of granite that was wondering where it came from, and what it will become. As I helpfully answer the rock's questions, I present a tale that spans hundreds of millions of years, revealing the immense forces that can melt rocks and mangle continents.

Read More

To Think Outside the Box, You Have to See the Box

We are awash in information. To make sense of it all, we construct mental models that greatly aid our learning, but also channel our thinking in specific directions. So while we praise the idea of "thinking outside the box", we simultaneously erect a dense forest of boxes that constrain our thinking.

Read More

The Contradictions in How We Explain Colors

We teach children that there are three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. As we grow older, we learn about the spectrum model of light, along with several other color models. So are all of these models "true"? If so, then how do we reconcile the apparent contradictions?

Read More

Are Continents Real, or a Human Invention?

Terms such as "African-Americans", "European history", and "Asian cuisine" are based on the idea that the world consists of distinct continents. This concept is an essential part of how we organize our knowledge of the world. But is this a hard fact, or a human invention?

Read More

Is a Virus a Living Creature?

We tend to thing of viruses and bacteria as being rather similar, lumped together in the mental category we call "germs". And yet bacteria are living creatures, while viruses are not. But this seems counter-intuitive to most of us. How could a virus not be alive?

Read More

Word Connections: Read & Write

All of the major languages of western Europe use similar words for "read" – except for English. All of these languages use words for "write" that are even more similar – except English. And they all use an essentially identical word for "library" – except English.

Read More

The Myth of the Swirling Toilet Bowl Water

Have you ever heard it said that toilets swirl in the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere? And that if you travel in a ship or on a plane, then the swirl will change directions the moment that you cross the Equator? Well, none of this is true! So what IS true?

Read More

Word Connections: Flowers

In today's episode of Word Connections, we look at some of our many words for flowers. We examine where these words came from, what these words actually mean, and what words are used in other languages for these same flowers.

Read More

What Does "Save the Bees" Really Mean?

We have all heard news reports about the poor health of bees in North America. We hear about bee die-offs and the risk to our agricultural crops. You may have wondered, "What can I do to help save the bees?" A good first step is to realize that there are many kinds of bees.

Read More

Word Connections: Sun, Moon, & Stars

What do the following words have in common: astronaut, lunatic, month, helium, Monday, and asterisk? The answer: each is derived from a word that means sun, moon, or star. See lots more fascinating tidbits in this week's episode of Word Connections!

Read More