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

Smithsonian Magazine Top Stories of 2011
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

1. When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?

And when did boys start wearing blue? Smithsonian editor Jeanne Maglaty unpacks these questions with help from Jo B. Paoletti, an expert on the history of children’s clothing and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America, to be published in 2012. As it turns out, the social convention did not take root until the 1940s.

From the story:

The march toward gender-specific clothes was neither linear nor rapid. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I—and even then, it took time for popular culture to sort things out.

For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw's Infants' Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Other sources said blue was flattering for blonds, pink for brunettes; or blue was for blue-eyed babies, pink for brown-eyed babies, according to Paoletti.

2. Who Had the Best Civil War Facial Hair?

This playful photo essay serves up a healthy portion of information about officers who fought in the Civil War while presenting readers with an added treat—the ability to vote for their favorite beard, mustache, muttonchops or sideburns. Since we published the story, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, the namesake of sideburns, has held a commanding lead over the field, with Gen. J.E.B. Stuart a distant second.

3. Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?

In 2000, Finland’s 15-year-olds received the highest scores in reading on a standardized test called Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, taken by students around the globe. In years since, the country’s students have similarly excelled in math and science. Veteran education journalist LynNell Hancock goes inside some schools to find out what makes the Finnish education system so successful.

From the story:

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:

“There!” Hansen said. Lozano banked down toward what looked from afar to be a huge stone knoll, half swallowed in vines and trees. The pilots who first flew over the Mirador basin in the 1930s, among them Charles Lindbergh, were startled to see what they thought were volcanoes rising out of the limestone lowlands. In fact, they were pyramids built more than two millennia ago, and what we were circling was the largest of them all, the crown of the La Danta complex. At 230 feet, it is not as tall as the great pyramid at Giza, but, according to Hansen, it is more massive, containing some 99 million cubic feet of rock and fill.

We were hovering now over the heart of the ancient city of El Mirador, once home to an estimated 200,000 people and the capital of a complex society of interconnected cities and settlements that may have supported upwards of a million people. The last thing you would ever guess from a casual aerial overview was that virtually every topographical contour in the primordial forest was created not by geological and environmental forces but by the vanished inhabitants of one of the world’s foundational civilizations.

6. Secrets of the Colosseum

German archaeologist Heinz-Jürgen Beste has studied the hypogeum, or ruins beneath Rome’s Colosseum, for 14 years. Read about how the space, now open to the public, was once a bustling staging ground equipped with elevator systems to lift animals and scenery into the arena for gladiator contests, battle reenactments and animal hunts.

From the story:

Beste says the hypogeum itself had a lot in common with a huge sailing ship. The underground staging area had “countless ropes, pulleys and other wood and metal mechanisms housed in very limited space, all requiring endless training and drilling to run smoothly during a show. Like a ship, too, everything could be disassembled and stored neatly away when it was not being used.” All that ingenuity served a single purpose: to delight spectators and ensure the success of shows that both celebrated and embodied the grandeur of Rome.

7. Top 10 Myths About the Brain

Senior editor Laura Helmuth debunks some of the most rampant rumors about the brain, including one that posits that we use only 10 percent of it. Visuals, says Helmuth, might just be the best way for us to make sense of the brain. See some artistic images of the organ in another photo essay from this year titled “Beauty of the Brain.”

From the story:

It’s all downhill after 40 (or 50 or 60 or 70).

It’s true, some cognitive skills do decline as you get older. Children are better at learning new languages than adults—and never play a game of concentration against a 10-year-old unless you’re prepared to be humiliated. Young adults are faster than older adults to judge whether two objects are the same or different; they can more easily memorize a list of random words, and they are faster at counting backward by sevens.

But plenty of mental skills improve with age. Vocabulary, for instance—older people know more words and understand subtle linguistic distinctions. Given a biographical sketch of a stranger, they’re better judges of character. They score higher on tests of social wisdom, such as how to settle a conflict. And people get better and better over time at regulating their own emotions and finding meaning in their lives.

8. Ten Unforgettable Web Memes

In May, the magazine published an excerpt from James Gleick’s The Information, a New York Times Notable Book of 2011 about information and the means by which it travels. In conjunction with the story, we also published on our site a survey of ten humorous memes that have gone viral on the web. Dancing Baby, anyone?

From the story:

Before high-speed Internet connections allowed the transfer of videos and large image files, animated GIFs (graphics interchange format) were how memes spread virally. The lithe dancing baby, alias Baby Cha Cha, was born in mid-1996 and its ten-second set of boogaloo moves became one of the earliest Internet sensations. Created by software publisher Kinetix, the silent animated GIF was re-imagined by some early web developers as a Rastafarian. Other web-savvy surfers designed a version of the baby tossing back a drink while others set the original animation to music. Television executives took note and incorporated the baby into the hit-1990s show “Ally McBeal” as a hallucinatory reminder that the title character’s biological clock was ticking—but to that driving “ooga chacka” beat from Blue Swede’s cover of “Hooked on a Feeling.”

9. Top 10 Books Lost to Time

There are many books that were penned at one time and yet no copies survive. We know that the works existed only because other books make reference to them. William Shakespeare, for instance, wrote a play called Cardenio, based on a scene in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, of which no copies exist. And Ernest Hemingway had his only working draft of a World War I novel stolen in 1922. The list, we admit, is a bit of a tease.

From the story:

Homer’s Margites

Before the Iliad and the Odyssey, there was the Margites. Little is known about the plot of the comedic epic poem—Homer’s first work—written around 700 B.C. But a few surviving lines, woven into other works, describe the poem’s foolish hero, Margites.

“He knew many things, but all badly” (from Plato’s Alcibiades). “The gods taught him neither to dig nor to plough, nor any other skill; he failed in every craft” (from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics).

It is unfortunate that no copy of Margites exists because Aristotle held it in high acclaim. In his On the Art of Poetry, he wrote, “[Homer] was the first to indicate the forms that comedy was to assume, for his Margites bears the same relationship to comedies as his Iliad and Odyssey bear to our tragedies.”

10. The Beer Archaeologist

Staff writer Abigail Tucker visits Dogfish Head brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where archaeologist Patrick McGovern helps resurrect an ancient Egyptian ale. An expert on ancient brews and wines, McGovern has been able to piece together the recipes of libations drunk thousands of years ago by analyzing ancient pottery.

From the story:

Many of McGovern’s most startling finds stem from other archaeologists’ spadework; he brings a fresh perspective to forgotten digs, and his “excavations” are sometimes no more taxing than walking up or down a flight of stairs in his own museum to retrieve a sherd or two. Residues extracted from the drinking set of King Midas—who ruled over Phrygia, an ancient district of Turkey—had languished in storage for 40 years before McGovern found them and went to work. The artifacts contained more than four pounds of organic materials, a treasure—to a biomolecular archaeologist—far more precious than the king’s fabled gold. But he’s also adamant about travel and has done research on every continent except Australia (though he has lately been intrigued by Aborigine concoctions) and Antarctica (where there are no sources of fermentable sugar, anyway). McGovern is intrigued by traditional African honey beverages in Ethiopia and Uganda, which might illuminate humanity’s first efforts to imbibe, and Peruvian spirits brewed from such diverse sources as quinoa, peanuts and pepper-tree berries. He has downed drinks of all descriptions, including Chinese baijiu, a distilled alcohol that tastes like bananas (but contains no banana) and is approximately 120 proof, and the freshly masticated Peruvian chicha, which he is too polite to admit he despises. (“It’s better when they flavor it with wild strawberries,” he says firmly.)

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