Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why I wrote The Geek Atlas

The second most common question about The Geek Atlas (after people have asked me to recommend the one best place to visit) is "Why did you write this book?"

I was working temporarily in Munich and at a loose end one weekend I wandered into the tourist office and asked about things I could see. Munich is a large cultural and industrial city and there's loads of stuff to do and see, but the thing that stood out amongst the tours, churches, beer and gastronomic delights was the Deutsches Museum.

The Deutsches Museum is Germany's science and technology museum and it is, at least in my opinion, the best science museum in the world. It's certainly the largest when you include its two annexes in Munich.

After I'd spent hours and hours wandering the museum's halls and admiring its collection of seemingly everything (including the wonderful jet aircraft that's been sliced Damien Hirst style to reveal its interior) I returned to my hotel.

Sitting in the hotel I realized that I had never heard of this museum. How had I missed out on just the sort of place that excites me? I figured there must be a guide book written by somebody that covers exciting places for people interested in science, mathematics and technology and so I hopped on Amazon.com.

I couldn't find a thing.

I surfed around other book sites, and came up with nothing at all. I even visited the sites of specialized travel book companies. Still nothing.

So, I sat down with a fresh emacs buffer and started to type up a list of places that I had visited around the world that I thought would excite other people like me. After an hour of work I had a list of about 70 places.

It was a wonderful hour recalling an afternoon spent in the National Cryptographic Museum, childhood visits to the Science Museum in London, wandering the Arago medallions in Paris, clambering around inside the Computer History Museum when it was just a couple of sheds on Moffett Field, being assaulted by light, noise and technology in Akihabara, keeping a curator way past her lunch time at the Fermat Museum in France, and standing on the wind-swept cliff tops in Poldhu where Marconi transmitted across the Atlantic for the first time.

A little later I had a proposed title: 128 Geeky Places To See Before You Die (if you are a computer geek the number 128 will instantly stand out to you like a secret sign, if you are not you'll have to buy the book to find out why). And I had an idea: write a book where each place is split into two parts.

The first part of each place would be a historical and general description readable by anyone, the second part would be a detailed explanation of the actual science, technology or mathematics behind the place. The general reader could slip the second parts and still enjoy the book.

One year later the book is almost in shops. The reality is that I wrote a book for myself, I wrote the guidebook that I couldn't find. I hope you find it useful (all those places can be visited), informative (I've tried to explain the science in two pages without dumbing it down) and inspiring (even if you don't travel you can dream).


janet said...

Your book is definitely going on my to be read list asap. Since I haven't read it yet, I don't know if you acknowledge the fact that the Computer History Museum started in Marlborough, Massachusetts and then moved to Museum Wharf in Boston before the Bells (Gwen and Gordon) moved west and all history of computing in Massachusetts was erased.

I still remember the progressive dinner party that Gordon and Gwen held at the Marlborough site where we had to bring a computer artifact as our admission ticket. The software folks had a hard time coming up with artifacts. I think I brought a FORTRAN program on paper tape but the memory is hazy.

John Graham-Cumming said...

Janet: thank you for your comment. I was aware of the history of the museum, but the book does not cover the backstory because of space constraints.

I wanted to write much more and include more pictures but it was already over 500 pages long.

BuckyBit said...

I spent 7 years in the library of the Deutsche Museum.

I also visited this museum from early childhood on. Albert Einstein was a member on the board during his residence in Munich (before the Nazis kicked him out).

This museum is a kids Fantasia, better than any Disneyland can be. There are live experiments all around and learning about science was more fun than it could ever have been in school.

Glad that people can find out about it, in this guide.

Marc Wong said...

Definitely looking forward to this. I feel many science museums are geared towards children and not in-depth enough. I wasn't impressed with the Intel museum in San Jose, I was once in Chicago and made the trip out to Fermilab, and the visitor's center wasn't even open because of renovations.