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 recent stories.

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

Digesting Food is Like Playing with Lego Blocks

When you eat, your body tears all the food molecules into much smaller molecules — and then puts them back together. It’s like purchasing a nice 3-bedroom house, dismantling it into a pile of bricks and lumber, and then building a new house in a different layout and style.

Read More

Word Connections: Freedom & Constraint

Our word "free" has two principal meanings: "not costing anything" and "unconstrained". If you want to translate the word "free" to Spanish or any other language, then you need to think about which meaning you are trying to communicate. See more details in this edition of Word Connections!

Read More

How Many Wisconsins Can Fit In a France?

Which is bigger, Israel or New Zealand, and by how much? If you were told the area of both countries in square miles, then your eyes would glaze over. But if you heard that New Zealand is nearly 2 Wisconsins, while Israel is just 1/7 of a Wisconsin, then you would immediately understand.

Read More

Word Connections: Hard, Soft, & Easy

The word “hard” has been part of the English language for a very long time, and we use the word to mean quite a few different things. Find out about the history of this word and its many connections to other words in this week's issue of Word Connections!

Read More

The Fuzzy Line Between Natural and Artificial

For many of us, we feel it is important to distinguish between "natural" and "artificial", especially when it comes to food products. And yet there is a huge, fuzzy gray area between these two concepts, rather than a sharp dividing line. So what's a person to do?

Read More

Word Connections: Window & Door

Our word "window" comes a Scandinavian word that literally means "wind-eye". Our word "cancel" comes from the same origin as an Italian word that means "gate" and a Spanish word that means "jail". For more fascinating word connections, check out this week's episode of The Philipendium.

Read More

When Cabbages Wear Disguises

What do cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi have in common? They are varieties of a single species of plant! Just as humans have created an astounding variety of dogs from a wolf ancestor, we have done the same with this group of vegetables.

Read More

Word Connections: Strong & Weak

What do the following words have in common: fortify, debilitated, foible, stark, flaccid, infirmary, and dynamite. Answer: All of these words are derived from terms that mean either "strong" or "weak". Find out more in this week's episode of The Philipendium!

Read More

Are Greenhouse Gases a Myth?

I recently encountered a simple and logical argument that greenhouse gases are a myth. But is the argument true, or does it have hidden flaws? This question provides an opportunity to discuss some key concepts about energy and how it moves from one place to another.

Read More

Word Connections: Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner

Did you know that breakfast used to be called "morganmete" in England? Or that the word "dinner" originally meant the first meal of the day? Or that "frokost" means breakfast in Norway, but it means lunch in Denmark? Find out all sort of interesting details about our words for meals!

Read More

Is the Tomato a Fruit? Well, It Depends...

If you ask “Is the tomato a fruit?” then the best answer is "Yes, it is a fruit." But if you ask “Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?” then the best answer is “It is a vegetable.” How can these two apparently contradictory answers both be correct?

Read More

Word Connections: Rock & Stone

What do the following words have in common: Peter, Craig, Einstein, lithium, calculus, roquefort, lapidary, Pierre, petroleum, and regolith? Answer: All of them are derived from older words that mean rock or stone. Check out the full story in The Philipendium!

Read More

Is There Really a Jungle Out There?

When we think of jungle, we picture people hacking their way through a dense, wet tropical forest. We call the lion the king of the jungle, but nature films show lions in dry, sunny grasslands. So what is a jungle really like, and where can we find one?

Read More

Word Connections: Tongue & Teeth

The words “tongue” and “teeth” have been part of the English language for a very long time. We have other more recent words that are also connected to the tongue and teeth, such as "language", "glossary", and "dandelion". Learn the fascinating story behind these words!

Read More

A Day Is Not 24 Hours

Where did we get the idea that a day is exactly 24 hours long? Does it take exactly 24 hours for the Earth to spin on its axis? No! Is it exactly 24 hours between one dawn and the next? No! So where did our standard "day" of 24 hours actually come from?

Read More

Word Connections: Life & Death

English includes a rich set of words that are linked to life and death. For many of these words – such as “vivid”, “mortgage”, and “vitamin” – the connections with life and death are not so obvious. So let's go excavating to see what “life & death” words we can dig up!

Read More

How Many Kinds of Living Things Are There?

For anyone who loves nature, the diversity of life on Earth is breathtaking. And therefore we wonder "How many kinds of living things are there?" To answer this question, we must raise and explore a great number of other fascinating but difficult questions.

Read More

Word Connections: Iron & Coal

In this episode of Word Connections, we look at the words “iron” and “coal”, tracing an intricate web of connections to other English and European words. Along the way, we also touch briefly on several scientific details that are connected to these same words.

Read More

The 5 Senses, or Maybe 7, Probably 9, Perhaps 11

How many senses do we have? Most of us assume that there are exactly 5 recognized senses, although we might wonder about a possible "sixth sense". However, we actually have more than 6 senses. In this issue of The Philipendium, you can find out what these additional senses are!

Read More

Word Connections: Right & Left

Did you know that our word “right” originally meant “straight”? Or that our word “sinister” originally meant “left”? Those are just two of the many fascinating word connections related to the words "left" and "right". Check out the full story in The Philipendium!

Read More

Is That Really Pumpkin in my Pie?

Each autumn, the diligent cooks of North America face the burning question “Does the canned pumpkin I’m using actually contain pumpkin, or is it really just squash?” Find out the complete story of what makes a pumpkin a pumpkin, and what makes a squash a squash!

Read More

Word Connections: Black & White

The English language has an amazingly diverse set of words related to the concepts of “black” and “white”. For example, the words "blanket", "melancholy", "leukemia", "albumen", and "wheat" can all be traced back to ancient words that meant either "black" or "white".

Read More

25 Beautiful Australian Wildflowers

Australia is blessed with thousands of species of wildflowers, an incredible diversity that is matched by few places in the world. Here are a few of my favorite wildflowers from the Australian states of New South Wales, South Australia, and Western Australia.

Read More

The Mysteries of Radiation and Light

The word “radiation” fills many of us with fear, while the word “light” is associated with cheer and hope. Yet, from a scientific standpoint, the two concepts are tightly intertwined. Furthermore, we are surrounded by more kinds of these things than most people realize.

Read More

Word Connections: Hot & Cold

The concepts of “hot” and “cold” are essential to the human experience and to our descriptions of the world around us. These words provide rich linguistic links, tying English into a web of connections with other European languages, and also to science and geography.

Read More

25 of my Favorite Georgia Wildflowers

Georgia owes its diversity of beautiful wildflowers to its range of habitats, from the Appalachian Mountains, down through the hilly piedmont, and into the flat coastal plain and swampy coast. This set of 25 photos is a sampling of some of my favorite wildflowers from the state.

Read More

The Travel Screen in "The Oregon Trail"

The “travel screen” from The Oregon Trail is an iconic image, instantly recognizable to millions of people. So where did this screen come from? How was it designed? Why does it look the way it does? The answer is a tale of hard work, cooperation, incremental design, and serendipity.

Read More

Fire Is Not What You Think It Is

All of us have had first-hand experience with fire, and yet most of us would have a hard time describing what fire actually is. As a result, fire seems familiar and yet mysterious at the same time. Now at last you can read a clear explanation that completely unlocks the mystery!

Read More

Word Connections: Butterfly & Ladybug

Butterflies and ladybugs: Both of these cute insects have interesting compound names. Where did these words come from, and are the names equally interesting in other languages? Join this linguistic journey to explore the origins and connections of these words.

Read More

25 Beautiful California Wildflowers

California has an amazing number of beautiful wildflower species, many of which are found nowhere else. This article features striking photographs illustrating twenty-five of the best examples. It is always a treat to find any of these flowers blooming in the wild!

Read More

The Hunting Game in "The Oregon Trail"

What??? I can only carry 100 pounds of meat back to the wagon!?! Have you ever wondered how The Oregon Trail ended up with features such as these? If so, then this is the article to read, because I was there when those features were designed, and I am ready to share the secrets.

Read More

The Day Pluto Got Demoted

How many planets are there in the solar system? When I was a kid, the correct answer was “9”, but now the answer is “8”. How did we lose a planet? The answer provides a revealing look into how we organize knowledge into neat little packets – which sometimes have to be updated.

Read More

A Web of Word Connections: "Apple"

Starting with the word “apple”, we can weave a tangled web of surprising linguistic connections, across multiple languages and continents. Along the way we visit pineapples, pomegranates, potatoes, canteloupes, and oranges – each featuring a linguistic connection to apples.

Read More

How Plants Arrange for Transportation

We don’t normally think of green plants as having transportation needs, and therefore we seldom ponder how they solve those needs. But plants really do have a serious need to get from one place to another, and they have developed a wide range of ingenious solutions to do so.

Read More

The Word "Devolve" Makes Me Cringe

These days the word “devolve” has gotten quite popular as a synonym for decline, degrade, descend, degenerate, or decay. Unfortunately, this new use of the word perpetuates a scientific fallacy, reflecting how we erroneously picture the process of evolution.

Read More