Our Top 10 Stories of 2011

From Civil War mustaches to Mayan lost cities to myths about the brain, here are the most-read stories of the year

Articles about beer and web memes are featured in our top 10 but which article is the most popular? (Clockwise from top left: TongRo Image Stock / Corbis; Library of Congress; Landon Nordeman; Dave Yoder)

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There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

4. The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right

In the past couple of decades, experts across several disciplines, including psychology, linguistics and neurology, have worked to better understand sarcasm. Why do we use it? At what age do we start picking up on it? Are there regional differences when it comes to sarcasm? And how do we express it linguistically? Science writer Richard Chin explains. (If you enjoy this, you may want to check out “The Saddest Movie in the World,” also by Chin.)

From the story:

Sarcasm so saturates 21st-century America that according to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. “Big deal,” for example. When’s the last time someone said that to you and meant it sincerely? “My heart bleeds for you” almost always equals “Tell it to someone who cares,” and “Aren’t you special” means you aren’t.

“It’s practically the primary language” in modern society, says John Haiman, a linguist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language.

5. El Mirador, the Lost City of the Maya

El Mirador, an ancient Maya city in northern Guatemala, was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago, and rediscovered in the 1920s. Follow archaeologist Richard Hansen as he peels back the encroaching jungle to excavate the 15-square-mile site of pyramids and other manmade structures.

From the story:

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