Since the magazine was founded nearly 35 years ago, science and natural history have been among the most critical ingredients in Smithsonian's unique mix. For some 29 years, the much-loved Jack Wiley, who retired in 2001 and died last February at age 67, led our coverage in these areas. We sought in his successor someone who combined deep knowledge of science and the natural world and the skill to communicate with our voraciously curious, always demanding, and occasionally persnickety readers. That search led, perhaps inevitably, to Laura Helmuth. Laura has a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience from the University of California at Berkeley, and is a graduate of the science writing program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She worked, among other places, at Science News, before joining the staff of Science, where she found herself editing for the weekly journal's news department. She came to us in April. "Sometimes science can be intimidating," she says, "but if it's explained well, readers can share the thrill that comes from a new discovery or idea." We think her article about the amazing accomplishments of the Hubble space telescope ("Hubble's Last Hurrahs?"), whose fate is very much up in the air, makes her point. It also offers persuasive evidence of our wisdom (if you’ll forgive the boast) and our good fortune, in hiring her.
We're also pleased to have found historian John Ferling, professor emeritus of history at the State University of West Georgia. In "The Rocky Road to Revolution," Ferling reminds us of the contentious debates of 1776 that finally led the Second Continental Congress to declare independence from England. The historic vote was taken on that fateful July 2, 1776. "That's right," says Ferling. "July 2nd! I like to grill outside or picnic on July 2nd. I feel that I am remembering the proper day, and it also enables me to celebrate twice—on the real independence day and two days later on the contrived holiday." So how did July 4 come to be the official holiday? Pure accident. In 1777, no one in Congress, busy prosecuting a war, gave much thought to the July 2 anniversary until it was at hand. "Given such short notice, it was obvious that not much of a celebration was possible," says Ferling. Only by buying 48 hours, could they do the thing justice. "As the sky darkened on July 4, 1777, and a band composed of Hessian prisoners of war provided music," Ferling goes on, "13 rockets were fired into the sky above Philadelphia." And the fourth of July—which was, after all, the day Congress adopted the Declaration—became Independence Day.