It wasn't all that long ago that a book entitled The Geek Atlas would've conjured up images of carnival sideshows, but sometime in the Information Age "geek" stopped being a carnival attraction who bites the heads off live chickens¹ and started being a half-admiring and half-scornful term for a technology nerd. So today, the title The Geek Atlas means something entirely different - as one might guess from the subtitle, 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive.
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Simply put, self-described geek (he's earned that title: he has a PhD in computer security) John Graham-Cumming set out to assemble a partial list of sites around the world where the course of history was changed by a forward leap in science and technology. He's cataloged dozens of such places in The Geek Atlas, many (but not all) related to computers; and rounded out his 128 entries with several sites where science and technology are on display in all their glory. Some entries are more or less no-brainers: the Trinity site in New Mexico (USA) where the first atomic bomb was exploded, for instance. Some are matters of personal taste: 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California (USA) is holy ground to fans of Apple, but there's no mention or Redmond, Washington at all... Some are just plain fascinating, like entry #127, the eastern US brood of seventeen-year locusts (due to repeat in 2021). All are carefully cataloged; their locations are supplied in latitude and longitude (to a tenth of a second); and little icons on each listing give information about admission fees, refreshment shops, kid-friendliness, and warnings about inclement weather. But hey: you could get that kind of information out of Guides Michelin and Rough Guide. What sets The Geek Atlas apart from ordinary travel guides is its target audience: people who find science and technology fascinating: geeks.
First off, are you a geek? Here's a three-question evaluation of your geekiness:
1) Off the top of your head, do you know the seventh decimal place of pi? (No fair pulling out a calculator.)
2) Do you get the joke, "There are 10 kinds of people: those who understand binary and those who don't"?
3) Do you get this joke: "Q: Why do programmers decorate evergreens at Halloween and wear costumes at Christmas? A: Because DEC25 = OCT31."
If you can answer "yes" to all three, then you've pretty darned geeky - if no, then maybe a remedial geek course will help...
And now, back to the book: Graham-Cumming's 128 places are spread around the world on six continents, though the vast majority of them are in Europe and the US (where most of the computing developments have occurred). There are numerous observatories of different stripes, including the only one of the 128 yours truly has visited - the VLA (Very Large Array) in Datil, New Mexico. Not everything is about computers and physics, however: there's also the (Gregor) Mendel Museum of Genetics in the Czech Republic and Darwin's Galapagos Islands off Ecuador for the life scientists. Math and geometry are represented by, among others, the giant catenary arch over St. Louis (the one people call "Gateway"). Among the others are the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, which is far more than just a monument to assembly lines: the Wright brothers' bicycle shop and the first McDonalds arch are on display there, for instance. The 128 entries are a study of the history of science and the lives and work of the most prominent scientists since the Dark Ages.
What makes The Geek Atlas far more than a travel guide, however, is the format of those entries. As one expects of a travel guide, Graham-Cumming introduces each attraction with the usual basic history and logistical information. Then, however, the fun begins: he turns a visit to the site into a learning experience by explaining not only the significance of the person, object, or moment commemorated; but also how it works - and the explanations are among some of the most accessible popular-science writing I've seen in years.
For instance, on your visit to Le Panthéon in Paris, you can see the original (restored) Foucault Pendulum. Graham-Cumming not only explains that, in 1851, Léon Foucault's experiment demonstrated that the Earth rotates on its axis (a concept incomprehensible to the masses); he also devotes three pages (with drawings and photographs) to explaining how Foucault's Pendulum demonstrates the Earth's rotation - and without resorting to jargon or black-box mathematics. I haven't seen the original, but there are copies of the pendulum around the world - the one I've seen most recently is in the lobby of Hunt Oil's building in Dallas. Some other sites?
• That eastern-USA locust swarm? Graham-Cumming turns its section into a discussion of the wonders of prime numbers; a topic that might never occur to less geeky folk.
• for CERN, in Geneva Switzerland, he waxes poetic over the Higgs boson
• for Apple HQ at 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino; he expounds lovingly on the causes and results of infinite loops
• At the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, AZ (near Tucson), you'll learn not only that you can arrange to sleep next to a decommissioned Titan rocket, but also how the rocket engines work.
Among the many other entries are the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine), the Alaska Pipeline Visitor's Center (Fox, Alaska), the Nevada Test Site, and a boatload of Silicon Valley sites that are near and dear to the hearts of computer nerds everywhere.
So, did you pass that Geek test? Don't feel bad if you didn't: many a person who thinks he or she is a geek is really a geek-poser. In fact, if you've continually missed the significance of the site count in The Geek Atlas, you should probably take a remedial geekitude course, too. And how better to get your geek on than to visit as many of Graham-Cumming's 128 sites² as you possibly can? With its wide-ranging scientific and technological coverage and the well-written educational text, The Geek Atlas is an absolute must for any up-and-coming geeklet; as well as for anyone who just plain likes science.
You'd better believe it's Highly Recommended!
¹ you could look it up...
² give up? 128 is two to the seventh power, or 10000000 in binary...
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