Our Ten Most Popular Stories of 2012

What was the best small town in America, where is the real Springfield and what does a 40-foot-long snake look like? We answer these questions

The most popular stories of the year. (Jacqueline Moen)
smithsonian.com

1. 20 Best Small Towns in America

Earlier this year we thought it was high time to focus on small-town America—towns with populations less than 25,000—specifically. There is a certain charm to places like our top slot, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which mints its own currency—BerkShares bills—to boost the eat-local movement in town, plays host to international festivals and is sandwiched between Monument Mountain and the Berkshires. If you didn't agree with our picks this year (many of you didn't), stay tuned for the 2013 edition to come out this spring—maybe your small town will make the cut. 

2.  Matt Groening Reveals the True Location of Springfield

A catchy headline brought in the “Simpsons” fans – the answer is Springfield, Oregon—but they stayed for the many insights  from the show’s creator  When we asked him 'Why Springfield?', he said it plainly: 

"I also figured out that Springfield was one of the most common names for a city in the U.S. In anticipation of the success of the show, I thought, 'This will be cool; everyone will think it’s their Springfield.' And they do."

3. In Space, Flames Behave in Ways Nobody Thought Possible

Ever since the days of the cavemen, fire has surprised us. Tests conducted earlier this year on the International Space Station showed that fire in space can be less predictable and potentially more lethal than it is on Earth. NASA has been working to answer some questions: Are some materials more flammable in space than on Earth? What about combustion changes up there and why?

 4.  Scientists Discover That Mars is Full of Water

Earlier this summer, an article published in the journal Geology reported evidence that Mars could be home to vast reservoirs of water. The debate dates back to the 1890s, but this research shifted our understanding of the geology of Mars, suggesting that the planet may have at some point in the past hosted life and increasing the chance that humans may someday be able to colonize it.

5. Triclosan May Impair Muscle Function

During flu season, it feels like we're all dodging sneezes on the train and whatever other pathogens are dancing around in the air. Many of us use antibacterial soaps to wash our hands as a preventative measure, but that may not be the best solution: a study released in August found that Triclosan may impair muscle function in humans and animals. The substance is found in everything from toothpastes to antibacterial hand soaps to mouthwash—a few examples on a long list of household items. The FDA has declared that antibacterial soaps with Triclosan are no more effective than simply washing with conventional products, so why take the risk? 

6.  Three Decades After Last Sighting, Japanese River Otter Declared Extinct

Back in September, Japan’s Ministry of the Environment officially declared the Japanese River Otter (Lutra lutra whiteleyi) extinct. The worst part was that the river otter, killed off by habitat destruction, hunters and pollution hadn't been sighted for more than 30 years.

7.  How Titanoboa, the 40-Foot-Long Snake, Was Found

Fifty-eight million years ago, a few million years after the fall of the dinosaurs, Cerrejón, Colombia, was an immense, swampy jungle where everything was hotter, wetter and bigger than it is today. The prehistoric region saw turtles twice the size of manhole covers, umbrella-like leaves, 150 inches of rainfall per year and a snake more than 40 feet long, which scientists call Titanoboa cerrejonensis. The discovery of the 60 million-year-old-beast, able to crush and devour massive prehistoric crocodiles, was a sensational reveal: the only logical step was to create a life-sized replica and put it on display, first at Grand Central Station in New York and then at the National Museum of Natural History, here in Washington, DC.

8.  Looking Back on the Limits of Growth

Back in our April issue, we reported on recent research that supports the conclusions of an environmental study released 40 years ago: the world is on track for disaster. The study, which used computers to model several—somewhat ominous—scenarios, found that if we continue to live the way we do, global economic collapse and massive population decline will occur by 2030. In a separate interview, Limits of Growth author Dennis Meadows says, “It has become really clear to me that we just haven’t got a chance of dealing with these issues in any kind of orderly way.” Some food for thought while you're making your New Year's Resolutions. 

9.  Teller Reveals His Secrets

One half of the magical duo, Penn & Teller, Teller told us everything there is to know about how magicians manipulate the human mind: why neuroscientists are novices at deception, how magicians have done controlled testing in human perception for thousands of years and why those who fund science research find magicians “sexier than lab rats.” (A few months, later, his more talkative counterpart Penn Jillette told us all about fire eating.)

10. Seven Famous People Who Missed the Titanic

When the Titanic sank in 1912, some 1,500 lives were lost—many of whom were titans of the early 20th century in their own rights: Benjamin Guggenheim went down with the ship, as did Macy’s co-owner Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida.  But a few got lucky and didn’t get on the ill-fated voyage for one reason or another:  Nobel Prize winners, a world-famous novelist, a Vanderbilt, Milton Snavely Hershey and thousands of civilians made up the "Just Missed It Club."

About K. Annabelle Smith
K. Annabelle Smith

K. Annabelle Smith is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who covers a wide variety of topics for Smithsonian.com. Her work also appears in OutsideOnline.com and Esquire.com.

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