2014, the year that was

Cheers. 2014 via palpitation/Shutterstock

Holidays provide some time to hunker down for a good read, maybe by the fire if you live in the northern hemisphere; if not, then on a patch of warm sand by the sea. In case you’ve missed some issues, we’ve asked the editors to recommended a list of favorite articles from 2014.

It was a hectic fall for breaking news here: the Republican upset in the midterm elections; the ebola epidemic; demonstrations in Ferguson; Obama’s announced changes in immigration policy; the thaw in US-Cuba relations after more than a half century of stand-offs; and continuing coverage of politics, arts, economics, technology and medicine. The Conversation was fortunate to attract some of the best minds in the academic community to weigh in with analyses of the big stories and present some groundbreaking research.

Traditionally the start of a new year brings change. For us that means welcoming two new editors to The Conversation’s coverage in the areas of Environment + Energy and Education. And now that The Conversation US has successfully launched (more then 4 million views including through creative commons republication!) there will be more staff changes as I step down as managing editor and Maria Balinska, currently deputy managing editor, steps into that role.

Thanks very much to our generous funders and to you. I wish you all a very happy 2015. But before you raise a glass, you still have time to catch up on some of our most popular stories. And don’t forget to encourage friends and colleagues to sign up for our newsletters, which will resume January 5th.

Margaret Drain

Politics + Society

A grand jury decision in Missouri, a Senate report on torture, Cuba-American talks. Just three of the big stories that have changed our political landscape this fall. Tony Brown argued that Ferguson isn’t a special case and that rather than focusing on race relations per se it’s time to talk about parity and an unfinished civil rights agenda. Christian Meissner was able to point to a silver lining in the debate over “enhanced interrogation techniques”: the fact that he and a group of international psychologists have been researching new, ethical and science-based methods of intelligence interrogation.

And Gustavo Perez Firmat, who came to the US from Cuba as a child the 1960s, reflected on the impact that “normalization” between his two countries will have on the cultural landscape of the Cuban exile. But it’s not just been about breaking news at The Conversation. Historians, too, have provoked plenty of thoughts with Daina Ramey Berry writing about the four most common myths about American slavery, John Maxwell Hamilton seeing parallels between Barack Obama and Woodrow Wilson and Sam Crane looking at the limits of Confucianism in today’s China.

Arts + Culture

There’s a world of information at our fingertips. News inundates us, punchy headlines beg for clicks, ads target us, phones ping us. Everything’s immediate. The academics who study our culture have the luxury of stepping back, allowing us to see the world a bit differently. Things aren’t always as they seem. For example, Michael Jackson, often dismissed as a freak, happened to be a brilliant artist. Could his lifestyle actually have been an artistic statement? Country music is Southern music, so its recent migration to the North is a novelty, right? Not exactly. We can actually trace some roots of country to New England.

In preparation for the opening of the Harvard museums, a team of conservationists needed to restore badly faded Rothko murals. Instead of taking the standard approach, which might have damaged the paintings, they painstakingly restored the murals to their original colors – using only light. They created an amazing optical illusion.

College football is often thought of as a financial boon for universities generating enough income to prop up other, less profitable student programs. But did you know, at most schools, that narrative is flipped? And while we’re talking sports, organized youth sports have long been a rite of passage, rightfully lauded for offering lessons in promoting teamwork, dealing with failure, and facing competition. But is there something lost by youngsters participating in so many organized sports?

Economy + Business

We’ve experienced a volatile fourth quarter in the worlds of economics and business. One of the big trends has been the return of “King dollar,” with the greenback surging against most major currencies from the euro to the yen. That’s been driven partly by the accelerating US economic recovery, which may lead the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates earlier than planned. Some argue that the central bank shouldn’t act too quickly, however, and should be focused more on inequality and different measures of GDP.

How the recent and unprecedented collapse in the price of oil will affect the recovery is unclear. It should stimulate consumer spending but it could also pose challenges and be a harbinger of bad economic tidings. And, by the way, if oil plunged by some 50% this year, why aren’t airfares coming down? That question prompted a senator to demand an investigation.

The Senate itself, meanwhile, has changed hands, leading many to wonder how the shift will affect business, the economy and Washington’s ability to get anything done. One area where we might see movement is in corporate tax reform, but some aren’t so sure. The next months should provide some answers.

Health + Medicine

In October news that health workers in the United States tested positive for Ebola dominated the headlines. Politicians called for travel bans and border closures to keep virus out the United States. And so the very first story from The Conversation’s Health + Medicine desk examined how infectious diseases have been used as excuses to close borders in the past. We also considered the duty of care for health workers on the front lines of the epidemic and that Americans should worry less about Ebola, and a bit more about the growing number of measles and whooping cough cases in the US.

The hunt for a cure or vaccine for HIV continues. So what to make of headlines talking about patients cured or cleared of the virus? Premature talk of a cure can undermine research and compromise prevention efforts.

We also took a look at sexual health. Sexting has become commonplace among teens – and we have the lowdown on the risks and realities. Speaking of sex, have you ever wondered if your sexual fantasies are typical? New research has shed light on this very issue.

Did our slate of health stories leave you feeling a bit anxious? Just remember that feeling anxious makes it harder to stop feeling anxious. So for the final days of 2014, remember to relax, preferably while taking a look at our series on wine. Cheers!

Science + Technology

It’s been a whirlwind over at The Conversation’s Science + Tech desk since we started publishing. Hard to even keep track of all the fields we’ve explored, much less particular stories. But what do you expect when human memory – even legal eyewitness testimony – is as fragile as it is. We did cover a lot of ground, after all; some of it was covered with water, actually, when we explored what the designation of an enormous marine protected area will mean for the expanded Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Maybe that was a bit, well, remote from your day to day life. But we had some news-you-can-use as well, like a story on the trade-offs of various flirting techniques. Keep that one in mind as you hit those New Year’s Eve parties. We tried to give you plenty to ponder too … like is your religion ready to meet ET? As the year ends, we’re thinking about the future of our STEM PhD friends. Our resolution for 2015 is to bring you stories on even more wide-ranging topics. But for now, maybe it’s just time to relax and hit the movies, preferably one with a scientist as the hero.