Lonely Planet Writer

Travel like a science geek

Do you visit natural history museums and botanical gardens when you travel? Does peering through a telescope at distant galaxies sound like a fun night out? Do your eyes light up when you hear the words ‘maglev train’? Would you rather be examining giant sloth fossils than relaxing by the pool? And when you do relax by the pool, do you find yourself wondering if the water is chlorinated or brominated? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might just be a science geek traveller.

Giant sloth skeleton, Natural History Museum, London
[Photo by Juan N Only]

John Graham-Cumming, the author of The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science & Technology Come Alive, is an expert in the art of geek travel and has extensive experience visiting some of the nerdiest spots in the world. John kindly took a moment in between writing some lines of code and programming his GPS unit to give us some of his personal geek travel tips.

The Geek Atlas includes 128 science-related travel destinations – what are your personal favourites?

1. Bletchley Park, England

“This is the place that helped shorten the Second World War by at least two years, and the people who worked here thought their way through the war rather than fought. They were the elite code breakers assembled under Churchill's orders who broke the Nazi Enigma and Lorenz codes (amongst others) and enabled the allies to read messages from Nazi commanders in the field and from Hitler himself.

“It's now a museum which explains the work that was done there. There's nothing quite like being led to stand outside British mathematician Alan Turing's office where he worked on breaking Enigma. Turing is the father of modern computer science and the father of AI. He also used to chain his tea mug to the radiator so that no one would take it (during the war metals were in short supply making a tea mug a valuable item).”

Enigma code machine at Bletchley Park
[Photo by david.nikonvscanon]

2. Institut Pasteur, Paris

“Louis Pasteur is probably best known for having invented pasteurization (the process of heating milk, and other liquids, to kill harmful bacteria and make them last longer). But he's also the father of immunization, having created vaccines from attenuated live viruses such as rabies.

“His home at the Institut Pasteur (including his laboratory) is open to the public. It's possible to see how he lived and how he worked. Both are fascinating and Pasteur is buried in a Byzantine crypt in the building. In his laboratory it's possible to see his long necked bottles of chicken broth that have sat for 150 years untainted as proof that without germs getting to them they aren't going to go bad. It's a simple demonstration of the truth of the germ theory of disease.”

Institut Pasteur [Photo by NatalieMaynor]

3. Deutsches Museum, Munich

“Probably the best science museum in the world. It is truly massive and has a fascinating collection of seemingly everything (including a jet aircraft with a slice removed so that it's possible to see the arrangement of seats, floors, baggage and cabling). It also has a wonderful miniature railway set which isn't just for kids, and a reproduction of a Spanish cave complete with paintings. And there are two annexes in Munich with really large exhibits (where you'll find trains, planes and automobiles). If you are in Munich, this is the place to go.”

Bottling plant miniature at the Deutsches Museum, Munich
[Photo by svenwerk]

4. National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC

“I can never spend enough time in this museum. There's simply so much to see, and so many of the exhibits are rare, valuable and moving. The history of air and space travel is illustrated with the key pieces of equipment that made it possible. Here you can see everything from the first aircraft to recent rockets.”

Watching a 3D IMAX film at the National Air and Space Museum
[Photo by nasa hq photo]

5. The Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California

“Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley is the place to go to understand the history of computing (even though computing has foundations in many countries including the UK and Germany). If you just turn up in Silicon Valley you'll probably be disappointed since it's just one big suburb of anonymous buildings.

“Happily, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California has a wonderful collection of almost all the important pieces of computer history and enthusiastic and experienced staff to explain it all. Mountain View is also centrally located making it a good starting point for any trip to see some of the other highlights of the area (including the garage where Hewlett-Packard was started, or the building where the first silicon chips were made).”

Tomy Omnibot 2000 at the Computer History Museum
[Photo by Marshall Astor]

Do you have any suggested destinations for travellers who aren't normally interested in science?

“I think there are two things people can do if they aren't super-interested by science: go to a science museum that's aimed at children (since the explanations tend to be simpler and clearer) or go to a science location that has something else to offer (such as a great walk in the country).

“Two places from The Geek Atlas that fit the bill are Sciencenter in Ithaca, New York and Jodrell Bank in the UK. Both feature an outdoor walk around a scale model of the solar system. Just walking from the Sun to Venus will give you an idea of the distances between the bodies in our solar system. In Ithaca it's a walk through the town itself. At Jodrell Bank it's a walk through a beautiful arboretum.

“The Ithaca walk ends at the Sciencenter which is very good for kids, or the science-challenged. At Jodrell Bank you'll see one of the largest radio telescopes in the world, and one of the first, which has been involved in everything from tracking quasars to spying on Soviet space probes (including scooping the Soviets to pictures from the moon sent by their own lander!).”

Jodrell Bank radio telescope
[Photo by maya]

For more science destinations around the world, visit The Geek Atlas online at http://www.geekatlas.com.

Do you have a favourite science travel destination or travel tip? Let us know below.