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The Geek Atlas 145

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
brothke writes "A recent search on Amazon for travel guides returned over 30,000 results. Most of these are standard travel guides to popular tourist destinations which advise the reader to go to the typical tourist sites. The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive is a radically different travel guide. Rather than recommending the usual trite destinations, which are often glorified souvenir stores, the book takes the reader to places that make science real and exciting, and hopefully those who exit such places are more knowledgeable than when they went in." Read on for the rest of Ben's review.
The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive
author John Graham-Cumming
pages 542
publisher O'Reilly Media
rating 10/10
reviewer Ben Rothke
ISBN 978-0596523206
summary A fascinating and enjoyable read
Irrespective of its travel content, The Geek Atlas is a unique and fascinating read for the information and overview of its wide range of topics. If there is a fault in the book, it is with its title. When people see Geek Atlas, they might think that this is a book that takes the reader to boring and obscure places, which is the exact opposite of its intent.

Author John Graham-Cumming writes that you won't find tedious, third-rate museums, or a tacky plaque stuck to a wall stating that "Professor X slept here." Every place he recommends is meant to have real scientific, mathematical, or technological interest.

Each of the books 128 chapters is separated into 3 parts: a general introduction to the place with an emphasis on its scientific, mathematical or technological significance; a related technical subject covered in greater detail, and practical visiting information. So while you may not be able to make it to the Escher Museum (chapter 29) in The Hague, Netherlands; the information on how M.C. Escher used impossible shapes in which the chapter describes is a fascinating read on its own.

Graham-Cumming notes that a disappointing trend with science museums today is a tendency to emphasize the wow factor without really explaining the underlying science. He notes the following 3 attributes of such museums: a short name ending with an exclamation mark, a logo featuring pastel colors or a cuddle cartoon mascot, or an IMAX theater.

Why does the book specifically have 128 places listed? See chapter 58, for the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley, UK. Graham-Cumming notes that your average travel guide would have listed perhaps 100 or 125 places. 128 is a round binary number (10000000). Of course, those who are binary obsessed might wonder why this book is not titled 10000000 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive.

The 128 places listed are for the most part divided equally between sites in Europe and the USA, with a few in the Far East and Russia. A complete listing of the sites is mapped on the books web site. Africa for some reason seems to be left out and perhaps a follow-up volume will fill that void. Of course, one could argue that Africa has had a minimal contribution to the world of science, mathematics and technology. Nigeria for example is famous for its 419 advance-fee fraud, but not its overabundance of contributors to physics.

For the US locations, there are locations for 25 states, with California being the biggest with 7 suggested places to visit. With that, it is surprising that the book lists the HP Garage, given that it is not open to the public and only serves as a shack to be photographed. Other places such as the US Navy Submarine Force Museum and MIT Museum are indeed more visit worthy.

The tours of some of the sites, like the HP Garage will take less than an hour or so (chapter 42 — Bunhill Fields Cemetery, London, UK), while others one can spend a half or full-day at the site.

While The Geek Atlas is touted as a travel guide, it is much more than that. Its 128 chapters are a wide-ranging overview of science and mathematics. Topics run the gamut from physics and pharmacology to transistors and optics. In fact, the book would make a superb syllabus for an introduction to science course. The plethora of subject covered, combined with its easy to read and absorbing style makes it a fantastic book for both those that are scientifically challenged, yet curious, and those that have a keen interest in the sciences.

The Geek Atlas is a fascinating and enjoyable read; in fact, it I found it hard to put down. Lets hope the author is working on a sequel with the next 256 additional places where science and technology come alive.

Ben Rothke is the author of Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know.

You can purchase The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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The Geek Atlas

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  • Geeklings (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tedgyz (515156) * on Monday July 20, 2009 @01:19PM (#28759387) Homepage

    For young and budding geeks, wired lists 100 Geeky Places to Take Your Kids This Summer [wired.com]. I guess they weren't obsessed with rounding up to a power of 2. Come to think of it, it's been a long time since I wrote code that worried about optimizing usage of memory/disk space to such numbers.

  • by Hatta (162192) * on Monday July 20, 2009 @01:21PM (#28759433) Journal

    How does a tourist get to experience real science getting done? I went to Los Alamos and went to a few museums there. I felt talked down to at best, and at worst propagandized. All this while many of the countries top minds are doing amazing research just thousands of feet away.

    No, the only way to really see science is to have a personal connection with the investigators involved. Get a tour of their labs, sit in on a talk by a visiting professor, go to a poster session. I don't see how this book will help with any of that.

  • by peter303 (12292) on Monday July 20, 2009 @01:21PM (#28759443)
    A good fraction of my vacation trips are for educational reasons. I want to see places, museums. conventions where I can learn new things. Some of my friends think I am crazy to do this rather than to go vacationing for pure pleasure and relaxation.

    For example in April 2008 I went to central New Mexico to catch three main sites: the Trinity bomb site (open only two Saturdays a year because its inside a military base), the Socorro large radio telecope array (the staple of almost many scifi movies), and Roswell. Along the way I hit the Almogorov Space Museum (sadly declining), and the Albquerque Atomic and Ballooning museums. Los Alamos is also not far away.

    My next goal is to catch one of the seven remaining shuttle launches. I better get organized because they end soon.
  • Re:Great idea (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mcgrew (92797) on Monday July 20, 2009 @01:31PM (#28759631) Homepage Journal

    I hope the Kennedy Space Center is, especially considering today's date. They have a Saturn V rocket (or did when I visited in the eighties), as well as an Apollo capsule, moon rocks, all sorts of incredibly interesting stuff. I never realized how HUGE that rocket was!

    Oh yeah, they fire off space shuttles there, too. Those are simply AMAZING. If you're up close (meaning a couple of miles away) the ground shakes. It's louder than a Pink Floyd concert.

  • Me too (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hcdejong (561314) <hobbes&xmsnet,nl> on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:29PM (#28760473)

    Same here. After several tries at more conventional vacations that turned out to be boring (Architecture? meh. Nature? If you've seen one tree, you've seen them all. Mountains? pfft), I've given my geek impulses free rein the last few years, and it's wonderful.
    I just finished a two-week trip to the UK, where I visited several old mines, a few car and aircraft museums, the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum (thanks to Neal Stephenson) [1] and Bletchley Park.

    1: an absolute treat, well worth travelling to the middle of nowhere for

  • by Atom Tan (147797) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:33PM (#28761469) Homepage

    Wow, what a sad post.

    There are hundreds of thousands of applied science jobs that do allow you to get out of a cube and get your hands dirty. Two personal examples:

    My father just retired after being a chemical engineer for 15 years (his second career). During this he spent most of his time in a laboratory or in the field working with manufacturers of physical goods to design processes that would yield good results with the chemicals they were using, or suggesting better alternatives. This often involved mixing up small batches of sealants, adhesives, etc. applying them to materials with different methods (brushing, spraying, etc.), and seeing how they held up. Not everyone's cup of tea, but certainly not spending a lot of time in a cube.

    My hands-on experience is with an airplane manufacturer (Boeing), where I worked for 4 years in a lab that produces simulations for all of their commercial airplanes. Actual test data for physical systems like engines and control surfaces was combined with modules like autopilots and flight management into a 7 million line-of-code simulation that could be used to drive the complete flight deck.

    True much of my week was in the cube, but very often, sometimes for days on end, we would be in flight deck replicas of the commercial airplanes (complete with hardware, hydraulic controls, etc. and simulated out-of-the-window view). We used the simulator to test behavior of new equipment in simulation, prototyping new displays for pilots, etc. Engineers in our sister group, Flight Test, actually got to test the equipment in flight.

    In both examples above there were dozens of engineers at the same companies doing largely the same things we were, with different programs or areas of emphasis. In other words, there were many such opportunities, but everyone was "the expert" on some particular niche.

    There is always an adjustment from academia to industry, and some disillusionment (I've found it happens with new engineers around the 1 year period once the novelty of joining the work force has worn off). As a hiring manager, I look for new engineers that can do the grunt-work but are still inspired to try new things and I've found that "new blood" can actually energize the entire team. I would say a goal for academia is to inspire students with a passion for science and discovery while preparing them for the discipline and sustained hard work required to succeed in industry.

    I think it is actually destructive to suggest that creativity and inspiration are not important in science jobs, because the types of jobs that do not require these (in other words, that require a certain level of knowledge but are describable and repetitive), tend to be outsourced to contractors.

A language that doesn't have everything is actually easier to program in than some that do. -- Dennis M. Ritchie

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