After five years of gallivanting across the globe, Charles Darwin settled down at Down House in Downe, England. Other than day trips to London, he hardly left his neighborhood for the remaining 45 years of his life. After three days at a conference in London this past summer, I took a day trip to Downe to see Darwin’s house, which is now a small museum. What I did not know at the time was that I was visiting site number 043 in The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science & Technology Come Alive (O’Reilly Media, 2009).
Author John Graham-Cumming holds a doctorate in computer security and is described in the book as “a wandering programmer.” (That background probably explains the zeroes that give all his site numbers three digits. Not to mention the choice of 128 places—programmers can’t resist powers of 2.) Graham-Cumming secured his own geek status by contributing to Linux Magazine. And he became a supergeek with his previous book, published in 2008, a guide to the software program GNU Make. That’s right, Graham-Cumming is the author of GNU Make Unleashed, which, he notes, “saturated its target market of 100 readers.”
The “come alive” in the title of the new book may be a bit of an overstatement. For example, site number 059, the National Museum of Scotland, is “the final resting place of the first animal cloned from an adult cell: Dolly the Sheep.” Dolly, it turns out, was not just the first cloned mammal*; she is the first stuffed cloned animal. Oddly, the world has yet to see the first cloned stuffed animal—a taxidermy specimen sampled to make a spanking new creature. Roy Rogers’s horse, Trigger, is just sitting there, or rather standing there, waiting for further immortality. (Technically and fittingly, Trigger is mounted, not stuffed.)
Or some enterprising researcher could double-down and attempt to make a sheep from Dolly in her current state, thereby creating a clone from a stuffed animal and a clone from a stuffed cloned animal.
Site number 029 is the Escher Museum, in the Hague, in the Netherlands, in the Europe. It houses the vast majority of M. C. Escher’s optically illusory prints of impossible shapes. Rumor has it that admission is free to anyone who actually finishes climbing the front steps.
A descendant of the apple tree that allegedly filled Newton with gravitas is site number 069, located outside Newton’s dorm at the University of Cambridge. Visitors might also see faculty member Stephen Hawking, whom the geniuses at Investor’s Business Daily editorialized would not be alive if he were British and had to depend on England’s National Health Service. Hawking issued a statement revealing that he is in fact British, even though his voice synthesizer sounds nothing like Benny Hill.
The Gaithersburg International Latitude Observatory in Maryland claims the honor of being site 099. This landmark is where they used to keep track of how the earth wobbles a bit on its axis, making the latitude variable when measured against star positions. The Gaithersburg location was one of six around the world all on exactly the same line of latitude, 39 degrees, 8 minutes north. Today it’s just a little white shack. Oh, and it’s closed, except “during special events organized by the city of Gaithersburg.” Nevertheless, you can include the observatory in a three-site, single-day Maryland tour that also hits the National Electronics Museum (100) and the National Cryptological Museum (101). Good luck figuring out the latter’s address.
With his background in security, Graham-Cumming was naturally attracted to site number 113, the John M. Mossman Lock Collection, near Times Square in New York City. (How has some show-off burglar not tried to knock over the Mossman Lock Collection?) “Over 370 bank and vault locks” are on display, among them ancient Egyptian wooden-pin locks that once may have kept mummies under wraps.
The atlas includes well-crafted explanations of the science related to the sites, so that an armchair traveler can still enjoy a virtual visit, aka a geek sneak peek. Which can sometimes be preferable. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (080), the region left virtually uninhabited by the world’s greatest nuclear reactor disaster, has a notable lack of really fine hotels.
Graham-Cumming should consider a second volume of nerdy spots. Because there are lots of us for whom repeated stress leading to irreparable metal fatigue to a spiral coil is spring break.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "You Nerd a Vacation."
*Erratum (12/22/09): This sentence has been edited since posting. It originally erroneously stated Dolly the Sheep was the first cloned animal.