Robin's Blog

Review: The Geek Atlas by John Graham-Cumming

Summary: Very interesting, and great fun for a geek like me! Now I just need to find the time/money to visit these places…

The Geek Atlas CoverReference: Graham-Cumming, J., 2009, The Geek Atlas, O’Reilly, 544 pages Amazon Link O’Reilly Link

I’m a great fan of John Graham Cumming’s blog, so when the chance came to review his book, The Geek Atlas, I jumped at it. The book is part travel guide, part popular science textbook. It provides information about 128 ‘geeky’ places to visit around the world and provides brief introductions to the science behind the places mentioned. After reading the Table of Contents I realised that this was definitely a book for me: I’ve been to 12 out of the 128 places mentioned already, and would love to visit most of the others. In fact, I spent the next hour going through them with my fiancee and trying to work out when we’d be able to visit some more of them…

Anyway, back to the review. The places listed in the book are all interesting for some reason or other: they range from museums, churches and graveyards to company training centres and ex-military bases. The ‘interestingness’ is normally provided through some link to science or technology, an area that most people who self-identify as ‘geeks’ find very interesting. However, the author seems to have gone to great lengths to make this more than just a simple list of places to visit, and has provided very readable introductions to the science and technology behind the places. These brief introductions cover topics such as suspension bridges, natural selection and breaking the Enigma code. At times it feels that they assume a little too much of the reader (sometimes there are some rather scary looking equations which I suspect many readers would not understand), but they are generally pitched at an appropriate level. The description of Bayes Theorem, for example, is by far the best I have ever read (significantly better than the descriptions in a number of probability and statistics textbooks I have read).

As for the geographical distribution of the places, the majority are in Europe and America, with the highest concentrations in the UK and USA. Although I could easily predict some of the places on the list (for example, I knew that the Science Museum would be on the list, as would Bletchley Park), there are a number of more unusual places like the British Airways Flight Training Centre (where you can use the same flight simulators that real pilots use) and the Cherynobl Exclusion Zone (which apparently is fairly safe to enter these days). It is impressive how much science is covered in the book – from 17th century work by Newton right through to the design of the new Airbus A380 aircraft – and this is shown by the number of cross-references in the book. One of the attractions is a cemetery where a number of famous scientists were buried, and nearly all of these scientists had been covered, at least to an extent, elsewhere in the book.

I can’t really think of much more to say, other than to note that the book is quite thick and has enough interesting places in it to keep you going for a number of years. On that note – I’m off to plan some travelling…

(Disclaimer: I was provided with a free review copy of this book)


Categorised as: Books, Reviews


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