Do Yellow Flowers Turn Into White Flowers?

Late in the spring, my son and I were walking home from preschool. I’m lucky, that way – my schedule is odd and early enough that I get to go pick him up, and we live close enough to his preschool that I can easily walk to get him after I get home. The weather was nice on the day in question, and like all usual he’s asking me questions left and right. Then he hits me with a stumper.

“Do yellow flowers turn into white flowers?”

I’ll be honest, here. I wasn’t certain what he was talking about. So, my response was a generic (and confused) “I… guess they can.”


“I don’t know,” I confessed. “What flower are you talking about?”

That’s when he grabs a dandelion, and blows it. Cottony seeds fly everywhere, and he laughs and chases them for a moment. Which is when it dawned on me what he meant. Specifically, he meant this:


Dandelions, scientifically, are Taraxacum officinale, a name that is thought to have come from tarashaquq (which was the Persian name for the plant) and the Latin officina (meaning an office, store-room, or pharmacy). The name comes from the fact that it was used as a diuretic and a mild laxative, as well as a mosquito repellent. The English name comes from the French dent de lion (meaning ‘lion’s tooth’). They are perrenial plants, growing from a thick tap root, and they have a bright yellow flower that looks a bit like a shaggy head of hair. Seriously, if you’ve seen grass in your life you’ve probably seen a dandelion.


Just in case you haven’t…

Why am I so confident about this? Because, although the plant is native to the Eurasian landmass, it grows everywhere. North and South America, India, Australia, and New Zealand at least.

So what’s up with those seeds?

You have, I’m sure, seen a dandelion that’s gone to seed.

Dandelions are apomictic, capable of producing anywhere from 54 to 172 seeds per head without fertilization. The seeds are generated twice a year, once in early sumer and once in early fall. Because of this, a single dandelion plant can produce more than 2,000 seeds per year. The seeds are designed to be spread by the wind (or by small, excited children) with the cottony fluff at the end of the seed functioning in a manner similar to a kite or parachute – any wind over about 4 mph will make them fly.

So, yes. Yellow flowers turn into white flowers. And once they do, you will never get rid of them.


What Do Lobsters Do?

A while back, we were out grocery shopping. My son really enjoys this (sometimes) because I let him get involved. He gets to pick out some of the fruit we buy, and he asks questions, and he gets to go look at the lobster tank. This last part is huge for him, because the lobster tank at the local grocery is a big cylinder sitting out in the aisle. And it has benches next to it, so you can sit and look at the lobsters. Or, if you’re five, so you can climb up and press your face to the plexiglass and stare at the lobsters in fascination. I’ve told him that they’re there so people can buy them and eat them, but he still regards it as a huge aquarium.

So we’re sitting and looking at the lobsters, taking a short break before we get back to the shopping. And he’s tapping on the glass, and staring at the lobsters, and asking questions. “Why are they in there?” “Why do they have rubber bands on their hands?” Things like that, easy questions.

“What do lobsters do?” he asks.

What? What does that even mean? So, I ask him. “What do you mean?”

“What do lobsters do?” he repeats, his voice incredibly patient.

“Like, what do they eat?”

“No, daddy,” he repeats, enunciating. “What do lobsters do?”

That’s a pretty heavy question. Let’s see if I can’t answer it.

What is a lobster?

Let’s start at the beginning. What, exactly, is a lobster?


This. This is a lobster.

Sure, I’ve seen pictures of them. And I’ve seen them in grocery stores, and at the aquarium. And that’s about as far as my knowledge goes. I think I’ve always assumed that they were oceanic bugs, maybe related to crabs, and then I went on with my day. They never really caught my attention the way dolphins or sharks or cuttlefish ever did.

The answeer is a bit tricky.

See, lobsters are crustaceans, a class of creature defined by the Encyclopedia of Life as belonging

to the phylum Arthropoda, as do insects, arachnids, and many other groups; all arthropods have hard exoskeletons or shells, segmented bodies, and jointed limbs. Crustaceans are usually distinguishable from the other arthropods in several important ways, chiefly:

  • Biramous appendages. Most crustaceans have appendages or limbs that are split into two, usually segmented, branches. Both branches originate on the same proximal segment.
  • Larvae. Early in development, most crustaceans go through a series of larval stages, the first being the nauplius larva, in which only a few limbs are present, near the front on the body; crustaceans add their more posterior limbs as they grow and develop further. The nauplius larva is unique to Crustacea.
  • Eyes. The early larval stages of crustaceans have a single, simple, median eye composed of three similar, closely opposed parts. This larval eye, or “naupliar eye,” often disappears later in development, but on some crustaceans (e.g., the branchiopod Triops) it is retained even after the adult compound eyes have developed. In all copepod crustaceans, this larval eye is retained throughout their development as the only eye, although the three similar parts may separate and each become associated with their own cuticular lens. In other crustaceans that retain the larval eye into adulthood, up to seven optical units may develop.
  • Labrum. Crustaceans have a lobe-like structure called the labrum anterior to the mouth that partially encloses it.
  • Head. Crustaceans are distinguished by a five-segmented head (cephalon), followed by a long trunk typically regionalized into a thorax and abdomen.
  • “Baby teeth.” Most crustaceans in their early larval stages chew their food with a unique structure called a naupliar arthrite, which is on the second antenna. This chewing tool is lost later in development, and chewing is taken over by the mandibular gnathobase.

Wikipedia adds that crustaceans include crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, krill, barnacles, and “all animals in the Pancrustacea clade other than hexapods” (with hexapods meaning insects). So, you really could argue that lobsters are bugs. They’re just not insects.

But wait! It gets even more complicated!

True lobsters are part of the Nephropidae family. They’re part of the Animalia kingdom (making them animals), the Arthropoda phylum (meaning they’re invertebrates with exoskeletons and segmented bodies), class Malacostraca, order Decapoda (meaning “ten-footed”). At present, fourteen different genera of Nephropidae are known, with a total of 54 different species. Out of those, if you’ve eaten one, it was most likely Homarus americanus (the American lobster, found on the Atlantic coast from Labrador to New Jersey) or Homarus gammarus (the European lobster, found along the eastern Atlantic coast of Europe, as well as the Mediterranean and Black Seas).

Related Decapodae are the spiny lobsters (family Palinuridae), the slipper lobsters (family Scyllaridae), furry lobsters (family Palinuridae), and squat lobsters (which are actually more closely related to hermit crabs). None of them are considered to be true lobsters.

Great. So what does a lobster [do?

There’s 54 different species, each of which does its own thing. In general they are benthic omnivores, meaning they live on the sea floor and eat whatever they can find. Fish and mollusks make up the majority of their diet, but they’ll eat algae, sea plants, and even other lobsters if they need food – although cannibalism appears to be a response to population pressures and is not believed to be a primary strategy. As benthic animals, they primarily walk (using eight of their ten legs for locomotion). They can swim as well – backwards – as an escape mechanism if needed. Swimming speeds of up to 11 mph (17.7 kph) have been recorded.

Lobsters, like most crustaceans, have to molt (shed their exoskeleton) in order to grow, something which is part of their reproductive cycle – males and females mate after the female has molted and while here carapace is still soft. The female stores the sperm for up to a year before fertalizing and laying eggs, which she will carry curled in her tail her tail for another 9 to 12 months before they hatch. At hatching, the female uncruls her tail and allows the surviving eggs to be exposed to the water so the larvae can float free.

Larval lobsters are planktonic, swimming near the surface as they go through three stages of development (named stages I through III). Stage III ends with the third molt, when the post-larval lobster finally resembles a lobster and settles down to the sea floor. The young adult lobster spends much of its time hiding and feeding at night, when predators are less likely to find and eat it. As they age and grow, they travel further to feed and begin to stake out a territory. Then, once they reach sexual maturity, the process starts over.

So, what do lobsters do? Pretty much what all other animals do: eat, sleep, grow, and breed.

How Do They Build A Planet?

More than once, I’ve mentioned my son’s love of (not to say obsession with) Star Wars. I can’t really complain that he does, either, since I’m the one that introduced him to the movies. He also loves Legos, which is why he really, really loves playing the Lego Star Wars games. And I get roped into playing with him, because he knows I love Star Wars and video games as well.

As we’re playing through the game one day, we get to the animated cut scene where the death Star blows up Alderaan. He’s seen the movie, so he knows it’s coming, but this time around it seems to strike a chord in him.

“Why did they blow up the planet?” he asks.

“Well,” I say, trying to strike a balance between answering the question and having to have an in-depth discussion on the nature of evil with my five-year-old son, “they’re bad guys. And they’re trying to make Princess Leia tell them where her friends are.”

“They’re not making good choices,” he decides upon hearing that, which makes me smile. Then, the level starts and we’re frantically button-mashing. But he’s still thinking. “Can they fix it?”

“Fix what?” I ask.

“The planet.”

“No, you can’t really put a planet back together.”

He thinks about that again. “Well,” he asks, “how do they build a planet?”

A Star Is Born

ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk. This best image ever of planet formation reveals multiple rings and gaps that herald the presence of emerging planets as they sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas.

ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk. This best image ever of planet formation reveals multiple rings and gaps that herald the presence of emerging planets as they sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas.

The current accepted model of solar system formation is the nebular hypothesis. It’s particularly considered a good model these days, thanks to the image above, which is an image of a planet-forming disk captured by the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array(ALMA). In brief, here’s how it works.

Solar systems begin as enormous clouds of gaseous matter – mostly, but not entirely, hydrogen – floating in interstellar space. These clouds are actually referred to as “molecular clouds” (or, sometimes, “stellar nurseries”), and they are huge – anywhere from 15 to 600 light years in diameter with masses of 100 to 10,000,000 solar masses. Which means that, despite their vast size and mass they are extremely diffuse, possessing between a hundrd and a thousand particles per cubic centimeter.

All matter exerts gravity, even matter as small as molecules and atoms. Over time (read “time” as “millions of years”), the particles begin to clump together and form molecular cores (with a density of 10,000 to 1,000,000 particles per cubic centimeter). As a molecular core grows bigger it generates more gravity, pulling more matter to it and making it generate more gravity. It also begins to spin, thanks to the principle of the conservation of angular momentum (the same principle that causes whirlpools and ice skaters to spin faster and faster).

If conditions are right, then eventually (over hundreds of thousands of years) the molecular core will grow dense enough that it becomes incompressible, and further attempts to compress it simply generate more heat. As more of the molecular cloud collapses into the heated molecular core, it eventually forms a protostar (which is just a young star that is still absorbing mass from the molecular cloud).

So Where Does A Solar System Come From?

When the protostar forms, there are three important facts to remember. First, it is spinning. Second, it has gravity. Third, it hasn’t eaten all of the molecular cloud yet. These are important facts, as you’ll see momentarily.

All of the particles in the molecular cloud are moving in a more-or-less random manner. However, the spinning protostar and its comparatively massive gravity lend a little uniformity to these random directions – all of the particles, in addition to their starting random direction, also move at least slightly in the same direction as the spin of the protostar. This leads to a phenomenon called accretion as all of the particles in the molecular cloud do one of three things:

  1. Fall into the protostar.
  2. “Go with the flow”.
  3. Get thrown away from the protostar until it leaves the star’s orbit completely.

Most of the particles will take option one, and be eaten by the protostar (our own sun has more than 99% of the entire of the mass of our solar system). Some of what is left will be flung out beyond the effective borders of the fledgling solar system. The particles that are left continue to engage in inelastic collisions, which cause them to lose momentum as they impact each other. Since they can’t effectively eliminate the rotational speed (they’re being dragged by the spinning of the protostar) they fall towards each other – flattening into an accretion disk in the process.

And The Planets?

So, we’ve got a flat spinning disk around the protostar at this point. The planets begin to form because of molecular cores. See, the core that formed into the protostar isn’t the only core that formed. Molecular clouds have any number of these structures, and the one that formed the protostar is simply the biggest, meanest one in the local area. Smaller cores get treated like any other particle in the cloud – they either get eaten, go into orbit, or get chucked out. The ones that go into orbit begin collecting other particles that are in orbit near them, since they’re the biggest nearby source of gravity (a process that can be observed by how satellites orbiting the Earth will fall towards the Earth more than they fall towards the Sun). They can’t accrete enough mass to ignite into a protostar as well, but they can become noticeably bigger. If they get big enough, they form into planets.

Could we make a planet?

Sure. In theory, at least. All we’d need is enough mass to clump together, and a way to move all of that mass close enough to get it to clump together. As a for example, Mercury (the smallest planet in our solar system) only weighs 60,830,000,000,000,000,000 tons. How hard could it be?

What Is Chi?

A while back, my wife took my son to the movies to see Kung Fu Panda 3. He loved it, and he had to tell me all about it when he got home. The explanation of the plot was fairly incoherent – five-year-olds aren’t known for their ability to clearly articulate lengthy plots – but it had something to do with a demon turning people into dumplings to harvest their chi? Maybe? What I remember is he was excited about watching anthromorphic animal martial arts, and my wife assuring me that I’d probably have liked the movie.

Anyway, as he’s telling me about the movie and about people getting turned into dumplings to have their chi harvested, he stops and thinks for a second. “What’s chi?” he asks.

Beats me. I mean, for various reasons involving my reading and viewing habits, I have a very loose idea what it is. But, honestly, I don’t know for sure.


Properly, chi should be written in English as qi or ch’i, although it may not matter too much. Transliterating from the different Chinese languages to English is difficult at best. It’s written in Chinese as:


For etymology and definitions, I’m turning to Wikipedia. First, the etymology:

The logograph 氣 is read with two Chinese pronunciations, the usual  氣 “air; vital energy” and the rare archaic  氣 “to present food” (later disambiguated with 餼).

Pronunciations of 氣 in modern varieties of Chinese include: Standard Chinese , Wu Chinese qi, Southern Min khì, Eastern Min , Standard Cantonese hei, and Hakka Chinese hi.

Then, the definition:

Qi is a polysemous word; the unabridged Chinese-Chinese character dictionary Hanyu Da Zidian lists one meaning “present food or provisions” for the pronunciation and 23 meanings for the qì pronunciation. The modern ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, which enters  餼 “grain; animal feed; make a present of food” but not classical  氣, has a  氣 entry giving seven translation equivalents for the noun, two for bound morphemes, and three for the verb.

n. ① air; gas ② smell ③ spirit; vigor; morale ④ vital/material energy (in Ch[inese] metaphysics) ⑤ tone; atmosphere; attitude ⑥ anger ⑦ breath; respiration b.f. ① weather 天氣 tiānqì ② [linguistics] aspiration 送氣 sòngqì v. ① anger ② get angry ③ bully; insult.

So what is chi? Or ch’i, or qi, or however you’re going to spell it?

Just to keep myself from going crazy, I’m going to go with “chi” for the rest of this article. And from the dictionary definitions presented above, it means air and smell and spirit and vigor and vital energy.Or it can mean anger, or breathing, or the weather, or being a bully.

Clearly, you should never trust someone who claims that a word in one language has a literal translation in another language.

Seriously, though, what’s chi?

I’m going to hit Wikipedia again:

The ancient Chinese described it as “life force”. They believed qi permeated everything and linked their surroundings together. They likened it to the flow of energy around and through the body, forming a cohesive and functioning unit. By understanding its rhythm and flow they believed they could guide exercises and treatments to provide stability and longevity.

Although the concept of qi has been important within many Chinese philosophies, over the centuries the descriptions of qi have varied and have sometimes been in conflict. Until China came into contact with Western scientific and philosophical ideas, they had not categorized all things in terms of matter and energy. Qi and li (理: “pattern”) were ‘fundamental’ categories similar to matter and energy.

Fairly early on, some Chinese thinkers began to believe that there were different fractions of qi and that the coarsest and heaviest fractions of qi formed solids, lighter fractions formed liquids, and the most ethereal fractions were the “lifebreath” that animates living beings.

Yuán qì is a notion of innate or pre-natal qi to distinguish it from acquired qi that a person may develop over the course of their lifetime.

So if I’m understanding that right, chi is the “substance” (for lack of a better word) that makes up both matter and spirit, probably along the blueprint dictated by li. Which is kind of a neat thought, although it begs the question of “how does li dictate that form?” Perhaps it is the Platonic realm of Forms?

Is chi real?

And suddenly we’ve got an unanswerable question.  We have no real evidence for the existence of chi, but there is no way to prove a negative.  We cannot definitively say that it does not exist.  All I can say for certain is that nothing that really matches up with chi has ever been detected in double-blinded experiments. Does that mean it isn’t real? Well, no. It just means that, if it is real, it’s really, really difficult to prove.

Unless you observe pandas, of course.

What Made His Skin Bubble Up?

This question was actually asked by my 15-year-old niece, who stayed with us for a week on vacation. And it was prompted by a bad sunburn.

Long story short:  our pool is open now, and the weather was beautiful.  So we spent a it f time at the pool. Now, we weren’t stupid about it – my whole family is fish belly white, so we slathered on SPF 100 sunscreen that I selected for being water resistant. Sadly, I missed the fact that it needed to be reapplied every 80 minutes when in water.

We all burnt, and since my son was in the pool longest he burnt worst.  And two days later he developed a blister on his shoulder.  So, while we’re taking care of it, my niece asks “what made his skin bubble up?”

At that moment, I’m afraid my answer was “you’re not helping!”  But it’s a good question.


To start with, let’s talk about sunburns. And I’ll be honest here: I always assumed that sunburn happened because of heat. I’ve only sunburned in the late spring and summer, after all, which is when the weather is hot. But according to What happens when you get a sunburn?, an article from Scientific American, the heat of the sun’s rays has nothing to do with it:

A sunburn manifested by cutaneous redness, swelling and painis an acute toxic reaction caused by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Although the precise mechanism by which a sunburn occurs has not been clearly identified, complex chemical reactions and pathways take place that most likely result in the clinical symptoms.

I probably should have realized this, given how much time and energy is put into talking about how sunscreen protects from UV light. But it just never sank in.

The article (which is short, and I recommend that you read it) goes on to explain that the redness and swelling from a sunburn appears to be caused by ultraviolet radiation damaging DNA in your skin. This causes your skin to syntesize different proteins and enzymes, which results in dilated blood vessels and inflammation, which causes redness, swelling, and pain. It can also utterly destroy skin cells, which is why you peel if you get a bad sunburn.

The heat of the sunlight also has nothing to do with why sunburns feel warm to the touch. That’s caused by the dialated vlood vessels. This causes increased blood flow, which raises the skin temperature slightly in the burned area.

What is a blister?


You’ve probably had one. If you haven’t, then it is a fluid-filled bubble on your skin. This fluid can be:

1. Serum, which is the clear fluid your blood cells float in.
2. Blood plasma, which is serum plus the clotting proteins in blood (called fibrinogen.
3. Blood.
4. Pus (which is a sign the blister is infected).

When a blister forms, it is (usually) a sign that the body is trying to heal itself. The fluid acts as a cushion for the tissue beneath the blister, serving to protect it from further damage as it heals.

The word blister appears to derive from the Middle Dutch blyster “swelling”, which may come from the proto-Indo-European word *bhlei- “to blow, swell”. This is debated, however, because it could also derive from the Old French blestre “blister, lump, bump”, which could come from the Old Norse blastr “a blowing”.

How does a sunburn cause a blister?

In truth, all burns can cause blisters. First degree burns my develop blisters hours or days after the burn is initially suffered, while second degree burns will develop them immediately. In either case, the body is attempting to protect itself from further harm or infection while it heals. Sunburns are no exception to this rule.

Caring for blisters

Both WebMD and the Mayo Clinic recommend that, if the blister isn’t significantly painful and if it doesn’t prevent you from walking or using your hands, then you are better off leaving it alone. If you absolutly have to drain it, here’s what you should do:

  • Wash your hands and the blister with soap and warm water.
  • Swab the blister with iodine.
  • Sterilize a clean, sharp needle by wiping it with rubbing alcohol.
  • Use the needle to puncture the blister.
  • Let the fluid drain, but leave the overlying skin in place. (If the fluid is any color but clear, seek medical attention.)
  • Apply an ointment (petroleum jelly will work, but an antibiotic ointment or cream is better) to the blister, and cover it with a nonstick gauze bandage.
  • Change the dressing and apply more ointment daily.
  • Watch for signs of infection, such as pus or drainage, as the blister heals.

DNA damage?

Yeah. Remember how I mentioned that, up at the top? The body can repair damage to DNA over time. But, if you overwhelm that self-repair mechanism through repeated excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation, the damaged DNA can lead to the development of skin cancer. So, seriously, use a good sunscreen. SPF 30 or higher. And be sure you read the instructions!