2012 has kept us busy. Since we formed last January we’ve been tracking the world of culture, technology and scholarship to tell you the stories that really matter. We’ve compiled a list of the most popular stories we’ve run in 2012—these are the articles that were most read, most shared, and most loved. And now, they’re all together in one place.
Thank you for reading and have a happy New Year.
Blake J. Graham
The Flame Explained
Three months ago Alan Alda issued a challenge to the world scientific community to explain the flame in a way “that an 11-year-old would find intelligible, maybe even fun.” Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science administered the challenge, collecting entries and employing 6,000 11-year-olds to evaluate them. The winning entry, from 31-year-old American PhD candidate Ben Ames, was announced a little over a week ago.
Alda, best known for his role on TV’s M*A*S*H*, was instrumental in the creation of the Center for Communicating Science and traces his interest in the flame question to a disappointing answer he received when he himself was 11. (“It’s oxidation,” he was told.) Now 76, he hopes he can help a newer generation find the answer he was searching for. “So here I am—I’m 11 years old and looking up at you with the wide eyes of curiosity,” he wrote in the Science guest editorial that initiated the challenge, “What is a flame? What’s going on in there? What will you tell me?”
Truth in Words, in Rhymes, in Notes: An Interview with Nate Ruess of Fun.
On an all but normal evening in 2011, Nate Ruess arrived early at the Bowery Hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He sat at the bar, downed a couple drinks, and waited nervously. Having spent ten years writing and performing music with various punk bands, a popular indie-rock group named The Format, and now as the front man of power-pop trio Fun., Ruess has encountered many people and products of the music industry. But on this night he’s getting silly drunk to calm his nerves and loosen up. For Fun.’s second album, Ruess devised an album seismically different from Fun.’s previous work. “I remember telling the guys in the band, the record label, and our manager ‘oh, it’s going to be like a Fun. album but it’s going to have breakbeats,’” Ruess told me. He intended to fuse his theatrical indie pop-rock sound with hip-hop aesthetic. To do it, he wanted the best producer in the business. He waited in the Bowery Hotel’s bar for producer Jeff Bhasker, the man behind the gilded stars Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Drake. Bhasker had already cancelled multiple meetings with Ruess, but serendipitous conditions aligned and he agreed to give Ruess 10 minutes of his time.
Indie Love Songs for Your Hipster Valentine
Contrary to popular belief, the best love songs aren’t limited to the croonings of Sinatra, Martin, or Adele. Houston, Dion, and T-Swift do not have a monopoly on the music of love. Many of the most emotional, heartfelt musicianship in indie music can be heard in their own attempts at the love song.
Indie Loves Songs for Your Hipster Sweetheart Pt. II
One of our inaugural Spotifriday playlists, Indie Love Songs for Your Hipster Valentine, is quite popular and quite good, so we’ve worked to expand it with a sequel. This time the song choices tend a bit darker, but maintain the tender nature of the first set—in fact, sometime the most tender (Pale Blue Eyes, Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime) are also the most bleak. In a way this playlist is the Godfather Part II of playlists: just as good or better than the original, and a bit darker.
Gender Equality in the Media: The New Social Movement
“The media is the message and the messenger, and increasingly a powerful one,” says Patricia Mitchell, the former president and CEO of PBS. By the age of 10, a young girl will watch an average of 31 hours of television a week and join other women around the country in comprising 52% of the movie-going population. Unfortunately, the media’s influence on young women has yielded many negative consequences. The media has been associated with causing young girls to have poor body images, exposing them to limited career options, and accepting inferior status to men. Organizations such as The Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media seek to terminate these negative consequences of the media’s influence on young women through public education.
Irrefutable Badass: Joe Kittinger, He Fell From The Sky At The Speed of Sound
He’s perched at the brink of infinity. Joe Kitinger is 19 miles above the surface of the planet Earth, suspended in basket by a helium balloon. He has passed the atmosphere as man knows it, and can see for 400 miles in every direction. When he looks up all he sees is darkness and the sharp glare of the sun. When he looks down, he can see the thin blue line that separates Earth from space. He is witness to the curvature of Earth. He peers over the edge of the gondola, says a silent prayer, and jumps.
The Examined Life and the Task of Public Philosophy
“The examined life is not worth living for a human being.” This phrase is over 2400 years old, dating back to 399 BC when Socrates first uttered the words at his infamous defense trial, and retold by his pupil Plato around 387 BC in the Platonic dialogue the Apology of Socrates. Beyond modeling the examined life himself, Socrates pressed ordinary Athenian citizens to question their notions of justice, virtue, piety, and love, and never held set definitions himself. Since Socrates, the aphorism of the “examined life” has given rise to analogous sayings such as “life of the mind,” vita contemplativa, and “learning for learning’s sake,” and is the subject of countless books and courses. One could even consider the project of philosophy, which itself began with Socrates, one of calling this phrase into question.
U.S. Colleges Name Their Own “Peer Institutions,” Rank Themselves
“When colleges look to compare themselves with others, they’re not much different from high-school students chasing popularity: Everyone wants to be friends with the Ivy League, but the Ivy League is really picky about whom it hangs out with,” writes The Chronicle of Higher Education on a recent analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Education. Every year, all 1,600 four-year colleges and universities in the United States submit a host of data to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, a database that tracks trends in higher education and the impact of federal education funding. As part of the survey, colleges are asked to list a “comparison group” of institutions, against which their finances, enrollments, graduation rates, and other data can be compared. It essentially asks institutions to rank themselves using U.S. News-style metrics.
“The Closing of the American Mind” Reconsidered After 25 Years
“My fellow elitists,” Bloom famously began, to an uproar of cheers from the audience. It was December 7, 1988 in a lecture hall at Harvard University, one year after philosopher Allan Bloom authored the influential book he was presenting on: the presumptuously titled The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. The culture wars had begun.
Initially written as a reflection on Bloom’s own academic career in the University of Chicago’s prestigious Committee on Social Thought, the book was not expected to be a game changer. But, after being reviewed by several important critics, it was widely read in and outside of academia, selling close to half a million copies in hardback and remaining at number one on the New York Times Non-fiction Best Seller list for four months. On account of its popularity and highly influential message, one critic has called Closing “the first shot in the culture wars” that still rage on between liberal and conservative critics and academics 25 years later.
The Key to Science a la Richard Feynman
On May 11, Richard Feynman, renowned quantum physicist, bongo drummer, and educator would have been 94. Feynman, who is considered to be one of the top ten physicists, died in 1988 from cancer. Notably, his last words were, “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.” In life and death he is remembered for his philosophy of scientific method and the great and ever-escalating questions each major discovery renders.
Waiting is Hell
Americans spend around 37 billion hours in line each year. When standing in dreadful lines it’s best to play games: One could count the number of green things in the room, try to calculate square roots in my head, create stories for the line-sitters around me, think of pretty things—do anything and everything to pretend she is not standing in line. A recent article by Alex Stone in the New York Times explains why lines are so taxing to humans and what organizations do to ease line-induced pain.
BREAKING: Looking at Adorable Animals Can Improve Concentration
Call in the Puppy Parade because the impossible is possible. Looking at the adorable, plump, squishy, coo-inspiring, bundles of sunshine that are cute animals is good for improving concentration according to a new study out of the Hiroshima University. The paper details the “power of Kawaii,” the Japanese word for cute, which was established through three different experiments. The conclusion of each: people show higher levels of concentration after looking at pictures of kittens and puppies.
South Korea’s Fool: Oppa is Gangnam Style
It would be easy to write off 34-year-old Korean rapper Park Jae-Song and his international breakout hit “Gangnam Style” as the culmination of a crazy-Asains-doing-silly-things mentality. For most of the media output from Korea, the western world, i.e. the US, can hardly do anything but raise an eyebrow—we don’t get their game shows, we don’t understand their celebrities, and we assume they’re trying to copy us and doing a terrible job of it. It is for this reason that K-pop and the world attached to it seldom breaks into the US market. This is why Park Jae-Song, who goes by performance name PSY, and his “Gangnam Style” video are so exceptional. In slightly over a month, the music video on YouTube has accrued 72 million views (Update: now over 1 billion views), in addition to celebrity shout-outs from T-Pain, Britney Spears, Josh Groban, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and has been covered in concert by Nelly Furtado.
While the US audience is cheering for the insanely poppy hit, most of South Korea is profoundly confused. South Korea has an entire sphere of young, attractive, and energetic K-pop stars like Lee Hyori, BoA, Kim Hyun Joong, and Super Junior—stars who emulate, to their best ability, the glamour, decadence, and style of celebrated US performers. While massively content with PSY’s international success, South Koreans wouldn’t have imagined a “gwang-dae” performer to make it big.
EyeWire: Play a Video Game, Advance Neuroscience
Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at MIT, developed EyeWire, an addicting computer game with an ambitious scientific agenda. The objective of EyeWire is to build a connectome—a generalized visual map of connections between neurons that govern vision, memory, and disease in the brain. The completion of such a connectome will establish a normative model of these connections. From this normative model, theoretically a neuroscientist will be able to compare a connectome of a normally functioning individual and an individual with a mental disorder, such as Alzheimer’s disease, thus offering insight into the role neural structure plays in mental abnormalities.