Best of Distillations 2019

We’ve taken some of our favorite stories of the year and put them in one place for your reading pleasure.

By Distillations | December 31, 2019

Drop in on a monumental argument about tea, follow an alchemist trying to make gold, and discover how noxious politics threatened to set plague loose in California. Each article offers something different. You can also listen to our podcasts and watch our videos.


Grainy photograph of a well-dressed crowd

Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie, Marie Meloney, and the Significance of a Gram of Radium

In the 1920s a pioneering journalist summoned the might of American women to revive a Nobelist’s career.


Jesse Gelsinger photo illustration

Photo illustration by Clay Cansler

The Death of Jesse Gelsinger, 20 Years Later

Gene editing promises to revolutionize medicine. But how safe is safe enough for the patients testing these therapies?


The Alchymist (1775), an engraving

Science History Institute

Hennig Brandt and the Discovery of Phosphorus

An engraving in the Science History Institute’s collections hints at the ways art and science were intertwined in the Age of Enlightenment.


Two children stare at cellphone in front of smokestacks

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Choosing a Better High-Tech Future

Rare earth elements make modern devices faster, brighter, and lighter, but it will take the creaky gears of government to make their production cleaner and more equitable.


Illustration of pepper plant

Smithsonian Libraries/Biodiversity Heritage Library

Heat Therapy

Humans have a masochistic love of capsaicin, a molecule responsible for the burn in hot peppers. That connection could be a key to pain relief.


Dutch tea advertisement

Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Fisher, a Bad Cup of Tea, and the Birth of Modern Statistics

A lesson in humility begets a scientific revolution.


Harry Gold photo illustration

Photo illustration by Clay Cansler

Harry Gold: Spy in the Lab

How did a chemist from Philadelphia wind up a Soviet spy?

Interview: Sangeeta Bhatia

Distillations talks to the 2019 Othmer Gold Medal winner about her work using nanotechnology to detect and treat disease.


Unidentified Beckman Instruments employees

Science History Institute

Disability and the Myth of the Independent Scientist

Movies and television shows like to portray scientists as lone geniuses. But scientists with disabilities know the reality is much more complex.


Wizard and Prophet photo illustration

Photo illustration by Clay Cansler

Where Lies Humanity’s Salvation—Conservation or Innovation?

Charles Mann’s latest book traces how scientists William Vogt and Norman Borlaug took very different approaches to feeding the world and how their feuding ideas anticipated today’s environmental debates.


Illustration of rat climbing down a ship's mooring rope with a city in the distance

Wellcome Collection

San Francisco’s Plague Years

As officials spread disinformation, a deadly epidemic edged its way into the United States.