Monday, May 11, 2009

Resources I used while writing The Geek Atlas

With my book The Geek Atlas about to hit stores I thought I'd blog about some of the resources I used while writing it. With the list of places in hand I had to research both the history of the site and the science behind it. To do that I used many different sources.

Wikipedia and Britannica

My first port of call for information was Wikipedia because it has a very wide range of information, but I was very skeptical about its accuracy and so I bought myself a subscription to Britannica so that I could double check information.

If I read that Boltzmann died in 1906 on Wikipedia I'd jump over to Britannica to check the date. After a few months of doing this I realized that I was never finding inaccurate information on Wikipedia and that my visits to Britannica were a useless time sink.

But worse I noticed a significant difference between Wikipedia and Britannica: Wikipedia was a great starting point for my research, Britannica was a dead end. Because Wikipedia insists that citations are needed for its content, it's possible to start at Wikipedia and quickly find yourself reading original papers that match the Wikipedia article. Or in the worst case you've got a reference to go research in a journal.

For example, in the page on the Miller-Urey experiment to determine how life could have developed on the early Earth, Wikipedia links directly to Miller's 1953 paper describing the results. (I was even able to make a small contribution by correcting a small error after reading the original paper.)

In contrast, Britannica wasn't generous with links off the site. Yes, they do have some references, but their general attitude seems to be "we're Britannica, part of our brand is the assurance that this stuff is accurate". Wikipedia's attitude is "anyone could be making this stuff up, we'd better link to authoritative references". That makes Wikipedia much more useful.

In the end, I canceled my Britannica subscription. Wikipedia proved to be a great index for finding the information I needed.

The Nobel Prize archive

Many of the people I wrote about in the book won Nobel Prizes and the Nobel Foundation has made available the complete texts of the Nobel laureates' speeches freely on their web site.

While researching the work of Cockcroft and Walton, I was able to read Walton's Nobel Prize lecture complete with his diagrams and pictures.

There were many other times I referred to the original lectures given by the Nobel laureates.

The New York Times archive

Although The New York Times is not a primary reference it does contain a large amount of historical material. It's been published since 1851 and its complete archive has been digitized, made searchable, and available for a small fee. I spent $$$ on the New York Times reading news reports of historical events.

For example, the New York Times archive covers the battle between Tesla and Edison over the transmission of electrical current, and has many articles about Nikola Tesla including an account of his funeral.


To get to the bottom of some topics in physics there's the amazing HyperPhysics web site from Georgia State University. The site contains tons of information about physics topics and they were kind enough to let me use some of their diagrams in the book.

If you are interested in understanding bremsstrahlung radiation and its role in producing X-rays then HyperPhysics is a great starting point.

Thank you for this great site made by Rod Nave.


NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other NASA locations have great web sites detailing the science behind rocket propulsion, flight and other technologies.

For example, NASA's Glenn Research Center has an entire microsite dedicated to explaining rocket physics. The JPL has a good site for understanding Astronomy.

In general, many other US government departments were very helpful. Folks at the US Geological Survey helped out my understanding of the shape of raindrops.

US National Register of Historic Places

The National Register of Historic Places in the US is very helpful because it not only lists places that are of scientific interest, it provides access to the digitized forms filled in when adding a place to the register.

These forms contain a written record of why the site is historic and are utterly fascinating. While researching the Horn Antenna where the Big Bang was confirmed I was able to read the application for entry on the register which contains historical information about its significance.


Many professors around the world received random emails from me asking for assistance in understanding certain scientific topics. All but one of them responded to me (usually within 24 hours) and all of them were very, very helpful.

One of the big problems researching a book like The Geek Atlas is access to scientific papers. Because I wanted to read the original papers for things I was writing about, I needed access to journals. As an individual these are prohibitively expensive: Nature wants $32 to read 700 words written in 1932 about the discovery of the neutron.

Many of these professors freely emailed me PDFs of their papers so that I could read them for free. I am grateful to all of them for assisting me.

To highlight just two people: a big thanks to Patrick Weidman at the University of Colorado at Boulder for helping me understand how the Eiffel Tower's shape is a result of the Parisian wind and David Gordon from the University of Washington for assistance with shotgun DNA sequencing.


dave said...

The Britannica does have its uses.

Wikipedia will never match the depth of coverage, and the quality of the writing, to be found in the classic 12th edition published early in the last century.

Anonymous said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

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