Our favorite science and tech stories of 2019
From ASMR to naked mole rats, enjoy this year-end highlight reel.
A lot of momentous events went down in 2019, from our first image of a black hole to Greta Thunberg’s proliferation of climate activism around the globe. In other words, we’ve had a busy year at Popular Science covering news that shocked, delighted, and amused us. Here are our favorite stories of the year.
Science helped me run my first marathon in 3 hours and 21 minutes
You always hear stories about the latest gear and training techniques: that they will help you maximize your potential and achieve unreal results. Do they work? Click click click click here. —Joe Brown, Editor-in-Chief
Meet the hero who saved everything you love about modern cities
This deeply reported, smartly written story puts architectural and neighborhood preservation, and the rise of mixed-use urban development, in historical context by highlighting the life and work of one of its staunchest allies. You’ll be smarter for having read it. —Chuck Sqautriglia, Senior Editor
Why these towns are trying to save an ‘agricultural pest’
I always thought of prairie dogs as adorable, innocuous rodents (albeit ones with unexpectedly complex language)—something you got to ogle while driving across South Dakota. But one of our contributors brought this story to our attention, which is about how surprisingly contentious prairie dogs actually are. I love this piece, and it made me love these little critters even more. —Sara Chodosh, Assistant Editor
Meditation apps want to calm you down on the same device that stresses you out
When Eleanor (a dear friend and PopSci writer) first told me she disabled all of the badges and push notifications on her iPhone, I thought she was making a huge mistake. But, of course, she wasn’t. All of those messages and numbers in red bubbles are seriously stressful, and it’s a huge relief to turn them off. When I followed in her footsteps, my life significantly improved. It seems wrong, then, that meditation apps like Headspace bombard you with notifications in an attempt to de-stress you. Is there a way to reap the zen benefits of these apps via the same device that stresses you out? Find out in Eleanor’s piece. —Jess Boddy, Assistant Editor
Rattlesnake roundups are a southern tradition. They’re also an ecological disaster.
I love stories reexamining traditions through unexpected lenses. If only more internet science writing could be as curious and original. Also, I love snakes. —Tom McNamara, Senior Multimedia Producer
After busting through a glass ceiling, Maya the agave plant is dying as dramatically as possible
Is it possible to stan a plant any harder? Agaves—the mega-succulents of Mexican deserts—are fascinating on their own, but Maya gives the rest of her genus a run for their monocarpic ways. In this artfully spun obituary, PopSci’s Chicago-based contributor Alex Schwartz documented the powerful life and graceful death bloom of a well-hidden gem in his city. For passersby in East Garfield Park, it serves as a reminder to look up. For the rest of us, it’s a gentle nudge to remember that humans are far from the only complex, well-storied species on Earth. —Purbita Saha, Senior Editor
I flew in an F-16 with the Air Force and oh boy did it go poorly
I’ve been in this business long enough to have edited a few “I flew with the Thunderbirds (or Blue Angels)” stories (and read a lot more of them), and most of them essentially say, “Holy shit, it was awesome.” Rob’s was the first I’ve seen to say, “Actually, no. It kicked my ass” and then explain the physical rigors of flying these amazing machines. His honesty, and passion for the subject matter, made this a fascinating, fun, and informative read. —Chuck Sqautriglia, Senior Editor
Super rodents, atomic math, and Marilyn Monroe: everything you need to know about moles
Your only knowledge of naked mole rats might be from Disney’s Kim Possible, and that’s OK. But hear me out—there is so much more to learn about these wrinkly little guys. Our Senior Multimedia Producer Tom McNamara made an entire video about them, and it is 100% worth a watch. Also worth checking out is his video on the unit of measurement called the mole, in which he turns a sphere of silicon into a crystal ball. Magical (yet scientific) stuff. —Jess Boddy, Assistant Editor
What astronaut diaries tell us about the perils of a mission to Mars
The words “NASA” and “Mars” show up approximately 33.9 million times in PopSci’s fall “Out There” issue—and for good reason: The Red Planet is the next great frontier that humankind can physically explore. But at what cost? Sarah Scoles gets into the mind bending details of how long-term space flights can shape people’s behaviors and psyches, adding a touch of compassion and empathy to the whole Mars colony narrative. —Purbita Saha, Senior Editor
Inside New York City’s vanishing community of repair shops
The workshops photo essay was my favorite story of the year. I was excited to photograph interesting spaces and tell the story of people doing something truly remarkable. It was right around the time we went looking for the secret entrance to a sewing machine repair shop at the back of a convenience store that I knew it was going to be hard to top. —Stan Horaczek, Technology Editor
Trying to eat eco-friendly? These charts show how different diets could change the planet.
Eating meals that are good for your health—and that taste good—is a hard task. But how our food choices affect the environment is equally important. However, little, if any, information on the environmental impact of food is available to consumers. Sara’s article breaks this data down into easily-digestible (pun intended!) charts, allowing readers to make the best choices for themselves and their planet. —Claire Maldarelli, Associate Editor
Baseball’s black magic: How psychology, math, and culture created a curse-ridden sport
This is one of those articles you read and say, “Duuuuuuuuuuude—I’ve been wondering about this for years!!!” I love how the narrative weaves psychology and stats and luck (even the Salem Witch Trials!) together as a way to examine why a ball player will scratch their butt for the rest of their life because one-time they hit a home run after scratching their butt. —Tom McNamara, Senior Multimedia Producer
Unlocking the mysterious ecstasy of ASMR—and its agonizing cousin
Editing this feature taught me so much about something I’d been exposed to countless times—there are more than 13 million videos on YouTube designed to trigger ASMR shivers—but never really thought much about the mechanics of. ASMR and misophonia are research topics we’ll still be working on cracking for years, but this overview tells you everything you need to know about the current state of the science. —Rachel Feltman, Articles Editor
How many people can the planet actually hold?
I love a story about climate change that isn’t 100% doom and gloom. And it has a fun history lesson. —Sara Kiley Watson, Editorial Assistant
Five Deeps: Victor Vescovo’s quest to reach the bottom of every ocean
Often, setting records or breaking barriers is nothing more than chest-thumping pursuit of bragging rights. Props are nice, sure, but in his mission to touch the bottommost points on Earth, Victor Vescovo went further: He opened up the depths of our oceans—which we actually know less about than we do outer space—for a new era of scientific exploration and inquiry. This four-part series chronicles his journey. —Corinne Iozzio, Executive Editor
People think beef is manly, and that’s a big problem
I certainly hate to bang my own drum here, but this story was definitely one of the highlights of my year at PopSci. People’s reaction to this piece on social media could have triggered a story all on its own. It reminded me how embedded in our society toxic masculinity is, and just how powerful science can be against it. —Sandra Gutierrez G., Assistant DIY editor
What to do if you’re exposed to tear gas
It’s rare that a DIY story has the potential to save lives and keep people safe worldwide. This one could. Sandra Gutierrez, our assistant DIY editor, went all-out describing how the weapon works and how to protect yourself and others from its noxious fumes. And yeah, maybe you’re not being tear-gassed right now, but it’s good to be prepared. —John Kennedy, DIY Editor
I spent 13 hours trying to make mac and cheese in a bag. It was a disaster.
There was no weirder, funnier, or more delightful story published on our website this past year than John Kennedy’s epic, 12-hour-plus attempt to make mac and cheese in a plastic bag, stovetop. It’s got everything you might hope for in a work of serious first-person journalism, including badly-cooked pasta, hot butter knives, smoked gouda, and a moment when the author lies down next to a kitchen trash bin, where he feels he belongs. Plus, there’s baseball. —Rob Verger, Assistant Technology Editor
You can get all the benefits of butthole sunning without taking your clothes off
Only in the Instagram influencer era could we seriously have to ask, and answer, the question, “can you really absorb solar energy straight into your anus?” I won’t give away the answer, but I will say Rachel uses it as an opportunity to present some smart, science-based, helpful information about the health benefits of sunlight and how to get them safely. —Chuck Sqautriglia, Senior Editor