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The 38 biggest surprises of 2014

What experts, politicians, and cultural leaders didn’t see coming

Who could have predicted it? As we wend our way through the last days of 2014, so much of what has befallen us was unimaginable at this year’s beginning. How could most of us have known that Russia would annex Crimea; that we would land a spacecraft on a comet; that same-sex marriage would rapidly become legal in a majority of states; that Malaysia Airlines would tragically lose not one, but two passenger jets? That we would see Yazidis overrun by the Islamic State, Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, and what seemed an astonishing number of journalists imprisoned or killed in conflict zones? That Thomas Piketty, “Frozen,” “Serial,” Pharell, and “The Interview” would be nearly impossible to ignore? That we would suddenly reopen relations with Cuba and reach a landmark climate accord with China?

Here in Boston, we suffered surprising losses, notably that of beloved longtime mayor Thomas M. Menino. (That’s not even to get into the losses of our sports teams, so often victorious in recent years that a lack of triumphant parades now requires explanation.) But we also saw surprising outpourings of solidarity, strength, and care: in April, a joyous Marathon day, and this fall, mass protests that insisted on racial justice but maintained the peace.

As the year draws to a close, we asked experts—thinkers in diverse fields, cultural leaders, politicians—what most surprised them this year, and got a, well, surprisingly broad look at what 2014 brought us: the events that gave our lives, our livelihoods, and our lives together as citizens an unexpected spin. As we look ahead to 2015, an equal year of surprises awaits. For now, here’s a look back at the things that, on Jan. 1, we could not have imagined.

I was most surprised by people power in 2014. After years of balancing between Russia and the West, one group of Ukrainians overturned its nation’s foreign policy, demanding firm alignment with the West—and then another group of Ukrainians in Crimea voted for union with the East. Perhaps the people had their way, though both episodes were of dubious democratic character.


Zachary Shore
Historian, Naval Postgraduate School and UC Berkeley

September 2014 marked the start of the first school year in American history in which students of color comprised the majority in public school classrooms. In my personal life as a suburban mom, it is hard to believe this day is already here. In my professional life working in low-income, urban schools, it is hard to believe this demographic tipping point hadn’t been reached decades ago. That this moment passed without a blip on the cultural radar is at once shocking and easy to explain; deeply meaningful on a macro level and essentially meaningless to individual citizens in a mostly segregated society.


Celine Coggins
CEO and founder, Teach Plus, an education reform organization

We sent a single e-mail blast for a show by Lisa Fischer and Grand Baton, and it sold out less than 24 hours after we clicked “send.” We added two more shows that sold out in less than 72 hours. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years.

Annmarie Blythe, General Manager, Scullers Jazz club
General manager, Scullers Jazz Club

The “Net neutrality” debate really surprised me this year. The old rule was struck down by a court in January, and I thought, oh well, so much for that. Then more than 4 million people wrote the FCC to insist it do something, and everything went bananas. I shouldn’t have, but everyone underestimated the level of public concern about a free and open Internet.

Tim Wu
Communications law professor, Columbia Law School

The organic, ongoing, cross-class, cross-race protests in Ferguson and in response to the Garner decision have been both deeply moving and deeply surprising. Why this year? Why these cases? Something bigger is happening, and I don’t think anyone would have said in January 2014 that both sides of the West Side Highway would be peacefully shut down on a cold December day a year later.

Zephyr Teachout
Constitutional law scholar, Fordham University School of Law

In the United States, every so often, we get reminded that police can do whatever they want with black bodies. But this year, something feels different. The Department of Justice is doing cleanup work in cities across the country. Crowds are peaceably assembling and remaining. Folks are stepping up and saying, “Black lives matter.”

Baratunde Thurston
Comedian and author of “How to Be Black”

Edel Rodriguez for The Boston Globe

The capture of Mosul by ISIS revealed something we had long suspected, but never quite wanted to believe: that thousands of lives and billions of dollars could not reassemble the state we dismantled after unseating Saddam Hussein in 2003. But even more surprising and disheartening is the fact that we do not seem to have learned our lesson. We continue to believe that American arms can be applied to the problems of the Arab world.


Tarek Masoud
Middle East specialist, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

This year saw three dynamic, fascinating, and extremely qualified African-Americans elected to Congress: Mia Love, Will Hurd, and Tim Scott. And all three are Republicans.

Rob Fortes
Founder and president, the Fortes Group, a management consulting company

The sudden increase in climate change consensus—an abrupt reaffirmation that the world learns in leaps and bounds, with dismally slow times in between.

Jennifer Leaning
Public health and human rights professor, Harvard School of Public Health

It surprised me when Fabio Caruana won seven chess games in a row, including a victory over Magnus Carlsen.

Tyler Cowen
Economist, blogger, George Mason University

My daughter Caroline’s amazing performance in a campaign television ad. She was totally natural in front of a camera—a scenario I usually dread because it’s not easy to do.

Charlie Baker
Governor-elect, Massachusetts

As a newcomer to politics, I’m surprised but deeply encouraged by how much we agree. In an era seemingly defined by partisanship and gridlock, it was eye-opening for a first-time candidate like me to see how many of us recognize the urgent need to take action on things like prescription drug and opiate abuse, driving down health care costs, protecting our youngest residents, and targeting sexual violence. It’s up to those of us taking office next month to make sure we recognize that consensus and build solutions around it.


Maura Healey
Attorney general-elect, Massachusetts

The big surprise for me this year was the number and preparation of the bicycle and pedestrian activists who came out to public hearings to reclaim the streets for human-powered transportation.

Lorenz Finison
Boston cycling historian, author of “Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900”

The consistency of comfortable sleeping nights in the summer of 2014. I can’t remember so many evenings when I was able to keep the windows open and the air conditioning off. What a joy!

Dave Epstein
Meteorologist for Boston.com and WGME

My biggest surprise was what the Nov. 4 election forced many of us to acknowledge: the unexpected speed with which our beloved democracy has been usurped and transformed by moneyed interests. Only this election year, in the obscene genuflection of all candidates to the purse, was their underlying fault fully exposed, baring us to the chilling truth of what America has become: a constitutional plutocracy, cloaked in the broken shell of a once glorious democracy.

Orlando Patterson
Sociologist, Harvard University

I have been surprised by the pace of development in Boston, even through initial uncertainty with the start of a new administration. Taxable property value grew by $7.6 billion in fiscal 2014 and will surpass growth of $10 billion in fiscal 2015. However, barely any of this value increase is due to the construction of middle income/workforce housing, which is critical to Boston’s economic growth.

Samuel Tyler
President, Boston Municipal Research Bureau

I was stunned to see just how much science piled up in 2014 indicating that future pro athletes specialize later than athletes who plateau at lower levels. This year sports scientists showed that future elites engage in less structured practice as children as they look for the right niche. Now if parents start paying attention, then I’ll truly be floored.


David Epstein
Author, “The Sports Gene”

I was surprised that Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. “The Goldfinch” was rambling, bogged down in the middle, and, in the end, pretentious. Too many words for too few ideas.

Debbie Porter
Founder and executive director, Boston Book Festival

I work on food and climate change, so I’m used to bad news. What surprised me this year was the good news. While it’s been hard year for some farmers, cereal harvests are strong and 2014 has been declared the most abundant year ever. Hunger is down. And food prices are declining.

Evan Fraser
Food security expert, University of Guelph

I was profoundly moved (and pleasantly surprised!) by the strength and power of the collective voices of sexual assault and rape survivors on college campuses in Boston and the US this past year. After years of knowing this was a grave problem, but starting to worry that the calls for change were mainly coming from activists who are now middle-aged, I was deeply inspired when young women in their 20s started protesting, and standing up to their college administrations.

Emily Rothman
Domestic violence expert, Boston University School of Public Health

I was surprised by how interest rates kept going down despite a strong pickup in the economy starting the second quarter. Many market observers had expected rates to go up this year, but the dollar’s strength and the corresponding weakness in the euro and yen resulted in massive amounts of capital entering the US. This is really a goldilocks environment for investors: strong GDP growth accompanied by low interest rates and low inflation.

Raj Sharma
Private wealth adviser, Boston

I was surprised to learn from Eve Ensler’s play “O.P.C.” that Americans generate 30 percent of the world’s garbage. Eve’s play has made me think about waste—and the devastating reality of climate change—in a whole new way.

Diane Paulus
Artistic director of the American Repertory Theater

Even with historically low approval ratings, 96 percent of incumbents seeking reelection will be returning to Congress in 2015. But up here in the 6th district, voters were willing to take a chance on new leadership. I’m new to politics, so it is an honor, if a bit surprising, to return to public service in this way.

Seth Moulton
Congressman-elect, Massachusetts’s 6th congressional district

In an October surprise, the number of states (plus D.C.) that allow same-sex couples to marry almost doubled practically overnight, from 20 to 36, when the Supreme Court decided not to weigh in on appeals of several marriage equality cases. An old friend in my home state of North Carolina got to marry her same-sex partner—something I didn’t expect to see for many years!

Lee Badgett
Economist, University of Massachusetts Amherst

I was surprised when the Supreme Court declined to hear any of six cases where same-sex couples won in the Court of Appeals. We hope the court takes a case in January, and ends the remaining bans.

Mary Bonauto
Civil Rights project director, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders

Edel Rodriguez for The Boston Globe

The Ebola outbreak didn’t surprise me—after all, we live in a world of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. What did surprise me was Governor Chris Christie’s ill-informed quarantine order for the nurse who returned from West Africa. It ignored virological evidence and the best medical advice in the United States. It felt as if I was watching my history books, and all the contagious follies committed in the past, unfold before my eyes.

Howard Markel
Historian of infectious disease, University of Michigan

The strong, fearful response of the American public to the Ebola outbreak was surprising, particularly when contrasted with the general lack of concern over antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. Each year, over 2 million Americans fall ill from such infections, and almost 25,000 die—a growing health crisis deserving of greater attention.

James Collins
Bioengineer, MIT and the Broad Institute

This November, Christie’s grossed a total of $852.9 million at their contemporary sale in New York—the highest ever at any art auction. The market is only one small (and skewed) part of a much larger art economy, but it’s hard to not sit up and listen, and feel like there’s an interest and engagement in contemporary art never seen before.

Eva Respini
Chief curator, The Institute of Contemporary Art

Youth civic engagement surprised me this year. Many voters felt disenchanted with politics, but the opposite was true for the young people I work with—our teen leaders were incredibly involved in this year’s election. Hundreds of young people attended a gubernatorial forum we organized, and young people met with thousands of voters. This election really meant something important to them.

Dan Gelbtuch
Community organizer, Youth Jobs Coalition

Surely the biggest surprise is the collapse in world oil prices from $100 to $55 a barrel—no one saw that coming. It’s both good and bad: It stimulates US economic growth and puts pressure on Putin, but destroys the economics of alternative energy and prolongs our addiction to gas-guzzlers.

Linda Bilmes
Public administration scholar, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

People thought the flagging economy would lead to more crime. It didn’t. People thought that shrinking the prison population would lead to more crime in the states where it happened. It didn’t. The violent crime rate is at its lowest level since 1960, and we now have an opportunity to fundamentally rethink our approach to crime and punishment.

Devah Pager
Sociologist of racial stratification, Harvard University

Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century,” a 700-page book of economics, became a global bestseller and transformed its author into a rock star. Of the 125 books I’ve translated, none has come close to matching the sales of Piketty.

Arthur Goldhammer
Translator of “Capital in the 21st Century,” Cambridge

In the year the death penalty hit a 20-year low in the United States, Missouri just set a record for the most executions in a single year (10). What gives? Then I realized that these two simultaneous records are flip sides of the same coin. The death penalty is on its way out in America, and as it declines it becomes more and more concentrated in outlier states (like Missouri) and even in outlier localities within states (like Houston, Texas).

Carol Steiker
Criminal justice scholar, Harvard Law School

We entered 2014 following one of the safest years on record in commercial aviation. Then came the twin surprises of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 vanishing, and Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 being shot down by a surface-to-air missile over the Ukraine. We will never know exactly what happened on MH370, but the available evidence points to some sort of intentional action. It appears that in 2014 more people perished from terrorist acts in commercial aviation than all other aviation accident causes combined.

John Hansman
Aviation expert, MIT

In the Obamacare rollout, there’s a “Cadillac Tax” on supposedly gold-plated health care plans, intended to make employers more mindful of costs. Instead, firms seem to be simply shifting more cost and risk onto the employees. While these changes may reduce the total cost of health care, the effects will fall largely on low-wage workers and the sickest people. I am surprised that the architects of health care reform didn’t see that one coming!

Alicia Sasser Modestino
Economist, Northeastern University

The one thing I could have never anticipated was the incredibly deep sense of appreciation and warmth that everyone—orchestra, audience, trustees and overseers, and staff—showed me during my first concert as BSO music director. I was overcome with emotion for an experience I knew I would never forget.

Andris Nelsons
Music director, Boston Symphony Orchestra

After the Marathon bombings, we came together as a city and rallied around the survivors. I knew there was great anticipation for the one-year anniversary in Boston, but the 2014 Boston Marathon far exceeded my highest expectations. The survivors rallied around all of us: the athletes, the fans, the spectators. On that beautiful day, the city came together as one, with so much hope, optimism, and resilience. Together we all finished the race.

Martin J. Walsh
Mayor of Boston

Compiled by Kevin Hartnett and the Ideas editors.


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