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MAKEcation: JB interviews John Graham-Cumming, author of Geek Atlas

MAKEcation: JB interviews John Graham-Cumming, author of Geek Atlas



Have you ever wanted to tour Bletchley Park, the headquarters of Britain’s WWII 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 to 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. However, he 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’ 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 the Galapagos Islands hails from Central or South America. And there’s 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.

Recently I interviewed John via email:

John Baichtal: What is the most notable omission from the first book?

John Graham-Cumming: Hard to say because there’s not one glaring omission that people bring up consistently. Everyone’s got a favorite place and some aren’t in the book. Lots of people wanted more NASA locations, but that would probably fill an entire Geek Atlas! Lots of people wanted more sites in Asia. If there’s a second book I’d include some optical telescopes because for some reason (a mystery even to the author) there are none in the first book.

JB: What is the most kid-friendly site you encountered?

JGC: In the book, lots of places are marked with a stroller to indicate that they’re good for kids. The Science Museum in London has lots of hands on exhibits (and a great space in the basement for kids to let off steam), and the Sciencenter in Ithaca, NY is similarly good for kids. I’ve been with kids to Bletchley Park in the UK who’ve been fascinated by the World War II memorabilia, and The Henry Ford, in Dearborn, MI, is also great with kids because of the wide variety of spaces and its size (it’s a Disneyworld for nerds).

If you want an excuse to visit Paris, then get your kids out and about following the Arago Medallions through the streets.

JB: With every location you provide a snippet of science or math behind it. What was the hardest lesson for you to comprehend and explain?

JGC: I didn’t really have any background in biology, so understanding the structure of DNA, or how Dolly the sheep was cloned, was quite difficult. On the flip side, I know a lot of computer science and mathematics and translating my knowledge into something for the general reader was hard in a different way.

JB: I know you visited a lot of these sites. Which one wowed you the most?

JGC: I can’t pick one: in the US it’s the Kennedy Space Center (the place is outstanding and everyone should visit it) and then it’s a battle between CERN and The Pasteur Museum in Paris. Just staring at tiny crystals that Pasteur sorted by hand brings to life the dedication of the man who did so much to make us healthy.

JB: On the other hand, there’s no way you could have visited them all. Which site do you most want to visit?

JGC: There are a few left I haven’t visited (including the Magnetic North Pole which I don’t think I’m going to get to). The place I’d most like to visit that I haven’t yet seen is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

JB: What is the biggest hot spot, the one city that has the most Geek Atlas locations in it?

JGC: There are a lot of sites in Europe in cities because of the relatively small size of each country. So you can geek out on sites in London or Paris with plenty to cover a few days of nerd-seeing.

JB: Are you working on a Geek Atlas 2?

JGC: I am thinking about it and actively soliciting people’s ideas at I’d love to do more sites in Asia and South America if people have great suggestions. O’Reilly is willing so you never know…

JB: Tell me about your weather balloon project. Who are you working with?

JGC: I’ve been fascinated by these balloon projects where you send a camera up into the stratosphere and take pictures of the curvature of the Earth. I decided to do my own because it would be a cool project and exercise my programming skills for the flight computer that will transmit telemetry (at something like 50 baud) giving the location of the balloon as it flies (and lands). I’m lucky enough to be close to Cambridge in the UK where the great guys behind CU Spaceflight have been giving me tips… but for the hardware and software it’s going to be all me. People who are interested can follow my “Geek Atlas Goes Airborne” (GAGA-1) feed here:

JB: What is Spaceduino?

JGC: Spaceduino is a similar project to my GAGA-1 mission which used an Arduino for the flight computer. I’ll be doing the same thing but with my own custom Arduino shield with the GPS, radio, and GSM modules.

Editor’s Note: If you take your family on a geeky vacation to some science- and technology-related destinations, we’d love to hear about it and see photos. Post them to the MAKE Flickr pool!

Geek Atlas companion app

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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