Our Top 11 Stories of 2018

From a 50-year-old political scandal to swarms of genetically engineered mosquitos, here are Smithsonian.com’s most-read stories

(Mårten Teigen, Museum of Cultural History; Associated Press; Stocktrek Images, Inc. / Alamy; CDC / James Gathany; Philippe Charlier; Brian Palmer; David Iliff via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0; Alamy; Pasini et al. / World Neurosurgery / Elsevier; Donovan Wiley; Library of Congress) Collage by Shaylyn Esposito

Even when ignoring the crazed world of national politics, 2018 has been a turbo-charged year, headlines accruing faster than you can blink. The Pyeongchang Olympics dazzled. Archaeologists set eyes upon a Borneo cave painting created at least 40,000 years ago, making it the oldest known figurative cave art in the world. An American married into the British royal family in decadent fashion. In China, a scientist claimed that the first genetically edited babies had been born; back in the United States, high school students responded to tragedy by organizing a nationwide protest advocating for gun control. We lost artistic, culinary and political giants and contemplated their legacies. InSight, a NASA probe, successfully alighted on Mars. From the frivolous to the monumental, across a range of disciplines, we’ve offered perspective on the news and shared new discoveries. Here are Smithsonian.com’s top eleven stories of 2018:

1. Why the True Story of ‘Chappaquiddick’ Is Impossible to Tell

In our most-read piece of 2018, contributing writer Lorraine Boissoneault examines the real-life tragedy that inspired the John Curran film Chappaquiddick. The political scandal has a few irrevocable facts: then-Massachusetts-senator Ted Kennedy (JFK’s youngest brother) was in a car with Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old who’d staffed his brother Robert’s presidential campaign, after a party on Chappaquiddick Island. Kennedy’s car overturned on a bridge and landed in the water; Kopechne drowned but Kennedy survived; the senator didn’t report the incident to authorities until 10 hours later. What happened on the bridge, during those 10 hours and in the incident’s aftermath, however, remains murky almost 50 years later. Why?


2. For the First Time in More Than 20 Years, Copyrighted Works Will Enter the Public Domain

You can freely quote, at any length, something published on December 31, 1922, and have been able to do so since 1998. But excerpting a piece of literature that debuted in 1923? An act of Congress prohibited it—at least, until January 1, 2019, when the first copyright thaw in over two decades will occur. This piece from Smithsonian magazine explains which works will enter the public domain and why we’ve had to wait so long for them to do so.

3. Dads Pass On More Than Genetics in Their Sperm

Katherine J. Wu details how a pair of studies in mice revealed how fathers pass on vital epigenetic information—instructions that, while not encoded in DNA, still affect how an individual’s genetic template is ultimately expressed. The University of Massachusetts Medical School researchers found that as sperm moves through the male reproductive system, it discards vital non-genetic material and then absorbs distinct versions of that epigenetic cargo from surrounding cells, a discovery the studies' principal investigator called “stunning.”

4. Rare Case of ‘Coffin Birth’ Seen in Medieval Grave

Little excites our readers more than the unraveling of an archaeological mystery: the circumstances leading up to a medieval “coffin birth” (formal name: “post-mortem fetal extrusion”) discovered in the Italian town of Imola. How was a fetus born after its mother’s untimely demise? Why was there a small, neat hole in the skull of a woman who lived in the seventh or eighth century, A.D.? Brigit Katz navigates the questions raised by the 2010 discovery of the pregnant woman’s grave.

5. Inside Slab City, a Squatters’ Paradise in Southern California

Slab City used to be Camp Dunlap, a onetime U.S. Marine Corps base from the 1940s. Now, it’s “the last free place,” where squatters have pieced together residences from the nameplate concrete slabs amidst the Colorado Desert in the southernmost part of California. Here, writer and architect Charlie Hailey and photographer Donovan Wylie, who collaborated on a new book about the unconventional town, answer questions from writer Jennifer Nalewicki about the community.

6. Hitler’s Teeth Confirm He Died in 1945

A new study definitely lays waste to all the conspiracy theories surrounding Adolf Hitler’s death. He died in 1945 as Allied troops approached his bunker in Berlin, likely by both cyanide and a self-inflicted gunshot. French researchers got permission from the Russian government to analyze Hitler’s four remaining real teeth and numerous false teeth and concluded, in the words of the study’s lead author Philippe Charlier, “We can stop all the conspiracy theories about Hitler. He did not flee to Argentina in a submarine, he is not in a hidden base in Antarctica or on the dark side of the moon.”

7. Norway’s Melting Glaciers Release Over 2,000 Artifacts

Jason Daley looked at an “unexpected positive” of the gradual warming facing our planet: melting glaciers relinquish cultural artifacts dating as far back as 4,000 B.C. Among the treasures? Wooden skis and pack horse skulls, which archaeologists find by surveying the edges of the dwindling glacier during one month at the end of summer. Read on to learn what the thawed artifacts are teaching researchers about Scandinavian history.

8. British Doctors May Soon Prescribe Art, Music, Dance, Singing Lessons

The “an apple a day” maxim gets an update. By 2023, Britain plans to have a full-scale “social prescribing” program. The ambitious project would allow doctors to prescribe, in addition to normal medical treatment, treatments that involve appreciating a work of art or taking up a hobby. It’s a bold step intended to reduce over-medicating by turning to alternative therapies like dance classes or playing an instrument, both of which have benefitted the health of patients in trial groups.

9. How Native American Slaveholders Complicate the Trail of Tears Narrative

Smithsonian curator Paul Chaat Smith of the National Museum of the American Indian says history can be a “mangy, snarling dog standing between you and a crowd-pleasing narrative.” Case in point: a new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian that delves into American Indians’ impact on American history and culture, including the complicated relationship between Native and African-American communities.

10. Do Not Fear the Drones Air-Dropping 50,000 Mosquitoes From Above

A swarm of genetically engineered mosquitos sounds like the stuff of science-fiction nightmares, but don’t worry: These mosquitos are there to wipe out their pathogen-spreading kin. This science report explains how teams of researchers and engineers are aiming to decrease the mosquito populations by introducing hordes of sterile males or fathers who will pass a deadly gene to their offspring, effectively whittling down the number of mosquitos who can infect humans with serious illnesses like malaria and Zika. And yes, the lab-grown insects have a futuristic ride to their drop-off locations—“mosquito limos,” aka modified drones.

11. The Costs of the Confederacy

This investigative project from Smithsonian’s December issue is crammed with stunning, sobering numbers, like the $40 million of taxpayer money that has gone towards Confederate monuments over the past 10 years. These are monuments that, as the writers discovered through a slew of site visits, perpetuate the “Lost Cause” ideology and elide the reality that the preservation of slavery motivated the Confederacy to secede and fight the Civil War.

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