Are you ready for the ultimate geek road trip? 12 suggestions.

Aug 4, 2015

For most people, a road trip means sun, the sky, the sea, a mountain range. But if you've got a bit of geek in you, your sightseeing becomes even more enjoyable when you can learn something about the science history of your destination.

If you're headed to the Jersey Shore, for example, why not take a detour to the Horn Antenna at Bell Labs, where scientists first detected cosmic microwave background radiation and confirmed the Big Bang? Or take a break from the drive on New Mexico’s I-25 to swing by the Trinity test site, just in time for its 70th anniversary of a pioneering atomic explosion next week.

If you have time this August, you can plot the ultimate geek road trip, with the help of a book called The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive, by computer programmer John Graham-Cumming.

Graham-Cumming got the idea for the book when he found himself at loose ends in Munich, Germany and asked the tourist office for suggestions. They pointed him to the Deutsches Museum, which turned out to be a fantastic science museum.

“I went back to my hotel room and thought, 'How could I not have known about this? I'm going to buy a book about geeky travel,’” Graham-Cumming says. “I went on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and it didn't exist. And, with the arrogance of anybody who's written a book, I thought, 'I could probably write that.’"

Graham-Cumming says he included only places he felt were “worth visiting,” in the sense that a visitor can engage with the actual science behind the location. The Goddard Space Center, which helped launch the US space program, is now represented by a small plaque in the middle of a golf course, so it didn't make the cut.

“It's interesting, but it's not really a great day out,” Graham-Cumming says. “I wanted places where you could really enjoy the science. So it had to be something that was worth taking the time to visit.”

Here are a dozen suggestions, some from his book — and some from listeners to PRI’s Science Friday:

1. The Horn Antenna, in Holmdel, New Jersey 

Essentially a sort of satellite dish, it’s a horn-shaped antenna that was originally used for Project Echo, before the era of communication satellites. NASA did an experiment in which they put an enormous balloon in space, which was metalized, and used the Horn Antenna to bounce radio signals off of it. This proved that communications through space was possible. Then it was used for radio astronomy and discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation that proved the existence of the Big Bang.

2. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory

You get to be a radio astronomer for a night. Visitors to the Green Bank, West Virginia, site are trained to use the 40-foot radio telescope. You can also see the first radio telescope, built by Grote Reber in his backyard before anyone was doing radio astronomy. Not very far away is the Greenbrier, a fancy hotel where Congress was going to be stored underground if there was a nuclear war. The observatory is located in the National Radio Quiet Zone, so there's no cell phone service. You can't even operate a microwave in the area.

3. The NSA museum

A bit hard to believe it’s open to the public, since the NSA doesn’t officially exist (even though there are signs to it on the freeway, but anyway…) It’s called the National Cryptologic Museum and it covers the history of cryptography up until the middle of the Cold War. It's fascinating, because you get to see the real equipment that was used, Graham-Cumming says. It's also one of the few places in the world you can use a German Enigma Machine from the Second World War — actually touch it and try it out, not just view it through a glass wall.

4. The Museo di Scienza in Florence, Italy

Right around the corner from the Uffizi Museum, it has a history of medical science and a history of optics. It’s also full of beautiful astronomical and navigational instrumentation and tracks historic scientific developments in Italy, particularly during the Renaissance.

For a bonus they have Galileo's middle finger in a glass jar, with the bones sticking out. (If you like this sort of thing, but can’t make it to Italy, check out the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia and the Walter Reed Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC.)

5. The Titan Missile Museum in Arizona

A real missile silo — "A great big concrete hole in the ground with a Titan II missile still in it, presumably with the warhead removed," Graham-Cumming says. "You get to see what it was like to sit down there for hours at a time, waiting for someone to tell you to launch the thing." If you want to get the full Cold War experience, you can sleep there overnight.

6. The Greenwich Observatory in Greenwich, England

The Observatory houses wonderful clocks once used for measuring longitude by calculating the difference in time between your location and London. It also has the zero line of longitude, where you can literally straddle the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

7. The EBR-1 experimental breeder reactor

Because of this reactor, Arco, Idaho can claim to be the first city lit by nuclear power. The reactor has been decommissioned, but the really fascinating thing are two nuclear aircraft engines, Graham-Cumming says. “If you want to get a sense for the insanity of the Cold War, you have to imagine that the idea was, 'We need bombers to be up in the sky for a long time, because we might have to bomb the Soviets at any moment, and, unfortunately, they need refueling,’” he explains. “The solution was nuclear engines, two of which were built and never got off the ground.”

8. The Mossman Lock Collection

A bit of a hidden gem in Manhattan, The Mossman Museum is a collection of locks, many made by the famous Yale lock company. It’s a wonderful collection of beautiful locks used for vaults and safety deposit boxes and such. It traces some of the history of lock making dating from the Egyptian period.

9. The Trinity site in New Mexico

The site of the first nuclear explosion on what is today the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico's Jornada del Muerto Valley.

10. The Hovercraft Museum 

“The hovercraft is the craziest thing [the British] ever invented,” Graham-Cumming says. “It’s a floating, gigantic machine, powered by jet engines that we used to use to get to France across the English Channel.” More than 60 hovercraft are on display in this museum in Lee-on-the-Solent in Hampshire, England.

11. The Tallahassee Magnetic Lab 

A famous lab in Tallahassee, Florida, that holds some of the country’s, if not world’s, strongest magnets. “Who can resist magnets? They're basically magic. I don't think they're even science, are they?” Graham-Cumming says. Just be careful with your credit cards and cell phones.

12. The Sagan Planet Walk in Ithaca, New York

It’s a scale model of the planets of our solar system and the sun, laid out throughout the city of Ithaca. You start at the sun and move through the planets, with the correct distances between them, so you get a sense for just how far away Saturn and Jupiter are, for example. Along the way, you pass through the Asteroid Belt, and you can sit on a large, genuine meteorite that’s been embedded in the sidewalk.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow. Check out University of Pennsylvania professor Randall Olsen’s optimized science road trip and share your own destinations at sciencefriday.com/roadtrip. Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the location of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. It is in Green Bank, West Virginia.