The Geek Atlas Shows You Where, and How


Credit: O'ReillyCredit: O'Reilly

Credit: O'Reilly

Have you ever wanted to tour Bletchley Park, the World War II headquarters of Britain’s codebreaking efforts? How about the Gutenberg Museum, dedicated to the invention of movable type? The Geek Atlas by John Graham-Cumming collects 128 of those dream destinations, every one an important aspect of our geek heritage. In the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, you can view such famous vehicles as the Wright Brothers’ plane, the Apollo 11 command module, the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne and many others. So many famous airplanes and spacecraft cram this museum, any geek visiting the nation’s capital has got to make a stop.

Like any proper geek, however, Graham-Cumming doesn’t just want view the site, but learn about the science that made the place famous. Therefore, for every entry there’s a corresponding scientific principle that relates to the site. For the Air & Space Museum, Graham-Cumming discusses pressure suits — famous suits worn by such luminaries as John Glenn and Sally Ride may be viewed at the museum — but quickly segues into the question of the temperature of space. He begins with an easy-to understand explanation of why space is cold — it’s a vacuum, and there aren’t enough particles around to transmit heat. However, the author explains, space isn’t at absolute zero because leftover heat from the Big Bang fills the universe. Graham-Cumming’s explanation continues with Isaac Newton’s and Gustav Kirchoff’s explorations of the nature of heat and light, before arriving at the answer: the temperature of space is 2.7 kelvin — not absolute zero, but super cold!

So, where did all this info come from? In addition to having visited 70 of the sites prior to even beginning the book, Graham-Cumming pulled his material from such sources as the National Register of Historic Places and Wikipedia (the author stands by its accuracy, having compared it to Britannica over the course of several months.) He found for-profit sites to be nearly useless — the author mentioned the high rates Nature charged to read old papers, while conversely, the professors who had written the original papers were often willing to email Graham-Cumming PDFs for free, just happy to share knowledge — the classic geek virtue.

Like many travel guides, Graham-Cumming supplies little icons next to each entry: Cost of admission, child-friendliness, and whether food or lodging may be found nearby. I found the kid-friendly aspect the most appealing. How awesome would it be to share such important places with our geeklets, to introduce them to these iconic sites where great minds did their work? And the accompanying technical info give mom or dad an easy opportunity for a quick science lesson.

The Geek Atlas covers sites throughout the world, ranging from St. Louis’s Gateway Arch (learn about the physics of the arch’s curve!) to the Tesla museum in Serbia (the author explains AC vs. DC). Most of the sites are in Europe and the United States, though several geeky destinations in Asia get mentioned, and only one — the Galapagos Islands — from Central or South America, and nothing at all from Africa. Did Graham-Cumming miss out on some important stuff? It’s hard to say. The book’s website has a forum where readers can complain about sites left out of the book, and I didn’t see much from those ‘ignored’ areas, suggesting Graham-Cumming did a decent job of selecting his core 128.

The Geek Atlas reads like a textbook that’s actually fun to flip through — it’s incredibly informative, accessible, and challenging. It’s a collection of some of the most important sites — and therefore the most important thoughts — our culture has to offer.

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