The term DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) often appears in the media these days. Because of these frequent encounters, we all have a general idea of what the term means. When we think of DNA, we think of genes — and therefore we correctly associate DNA with genetic inheritance. In particular, we think of the human genome, which is the complete set of genes in a human being, distributed across 23 pairs of chromosomes. Yet our common understanding of DNA tends to be highly limited — and somewhat inaccurate. Consider, for the example, the following three statements. …


Image credits: CO2-Sky/Zappys Technology Solutions [public] (source); Tree/pngimg.com [CC BY-NC 4.0] (source)

It’s not hard to find wacky ideas about science on the internet — bizarre concepts that stand out because they are so far removed from reality. However, when popular ideas about science are very nearly correct — but not quite — such subtle errors can be hard to spot. A fascinating example involves our popular explanations for the relationship between trees and carbon dioxide. It’s not that these popular explanations are completely wrong — in fact they are mostly correct — and yet the limitations of some of these models can lead to erroneous conclusions.

Below are six common mental…


Image credits: Water/pngimg.com [CC BY-NC 4.0] (source); Lightning/Diamond T Design [public] (source)

Quickly — name three ways in which water is intimately tied to energy. Ready? What answers did you come up with? If the word “energy” made you think of commercial energy production, then your first answer was probably hydroelectric dams. You might also have thought about the use of water to cool nuclear power plants, or the use of large amounts of water in hydraulic fracking and coal mining. If you are mechanically oriented, then you might have thought of steam engines or hydraulic systems. If you are a botanist or a biochemist, then perhaps you thought about the crucial…


Image source: Freedom in the World 2018, published by Freedom House

The recent talks with North Korea have brought renewed attention to that nation — and to the extremely repressive nature of its government. By any measure, North Korea is one of the most repressive countries in the world. However, North Korea is not the only country with a dismal human rights record. Several dozen of the world’s nations are highly oppressive, sometimes brutally so. Yet each nation is unique — and therefore direct comparisons between these countries can be tricky. Suppose it was your job to evaluate every country on Earth as to how repressive or free it is —…


Image credit: mcmurryjulie via Pixabay [public domain] (source)

It seems a simple question: Are you and I related? When we phrase a question in this manner, we assume that there is a simple “yes” or “no” answer — either we are related, or we are not. This implies that there is a clear criterion for determining the answer. If the answer is yes, then we must have an ancestor in common. However, the hidden assumption is that any common ancestor must be within three generations (great-grandparents) or perhaps four generations (great-great-grandparents) — or else it doesn’t count. …


Image credits: Tomato-The Ewan [CC BY-SA 2.0] (source); Potato-Scott Bauer [public] (source); Pepper-idaun [public] (source)

What do tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers have in common? One obvious answer is that these are all food plants. We can grow these plants in farm fields or home gardens and then collect the edible results. Or we can visit a grocery to purchase fresh produce from these plants. But what else do these three plants have in common? In fact, there are multiple answers:

  • All three plants are members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which means that they are all related.
  • All three crops were first domesticated in the Americas by Native Americans, but spread around the world after…


The Oregon Trail is, by most measures, the most successful education computer game of all time. Many versions of the game were created over the years, dating all the way back to 1971. However, the version that many people assume is the “original” — the version that constantly appears in memes and magazine articles — is the 1985 Apple II version. (The 1985 design was also implemented on the IBM PC, but it first appeared on the Apple II.) …


Image credit: Prawny via Pixabay [public domain] (source)

I’ve recently been approached by a publicist representing the Plant Kingdom, and on behalf of all the plants in the world, I have been requested to assist in setting the record straight. The plants of the world feel strongly that they have not been getting enough credit. It seems that very few people have a full appreciation of the roles that plants have played — and continue to play — in making the world what it is today. The issue is not just that plants are the ultimate source of everything we eat — which means that without plants we…


Image credit: J.T. Csotonyi [CC BY 2.5] (source)

A good friend of mine has kindly agreed to let me borrow her flying time machine for a week. I’ve never flown one of these before, but she has given me thorough instructions on how to operate the craft. My plan is to spend each of my seven vacation days visiting a different time period in geologic history. I’m looking forward to seeing what is familiar and what is unfamiliar in each time period I visit.

Day 1 — 100,000 years ago

For my first day of vacation, I’ve gone back 100,000 years in time. As I land my flying time machine somewhere in the southeastern…


Image credit: Kham Tran via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 3.0] (source)

After a restaurant meal, do you appreciate an after-dinner mint? Do you like mint-flavored toothpaste? Are you a fan of chocolate-mint ice cream or chocolate-mint cookies? What do you think of mint tea? Would you be willing to try an apple-mint smoothie? The concept of “mint” as a flavoring is quite familiar in our culture, and therefore the meaning seems fairly clear. But what exactly qualifies as “mint”? How many different kinds of plants can be called “mint”, and how do they differ from each other? …

R. Philip Bouchard

Writer, educator, and avid student of nature. See more at www.philipbouchard.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store