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The Geek Atlas 145

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.

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The Geek Atlas

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In seeking the unattainable, simplicity only gets in the way. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982