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The Geek Atlas by John Graham-Cumming

1/09/2010. Contributed by Neale Monks

Buy The Geek Atlas in the USA - or Buy The Geek Atlas in the UK

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pub: O'Reilly. 528 page paperback. Price: $29.99 (US), 22.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-59652-320-6.

check out website:http://oreilly.com/

Many people who enjoy Science Fiction also enjoy learning about science and of course, a great many Science Fiction authors have in various ways contributed to the advancement of science. So while 'The Geek Atlas' isn't a typical SFCrowsnest book, the reviewer thinks it's something many SFCrowsnest readers will find entertaining.

Essentially, 'The Geek Atlas' is a book to be used when planning trips, rather like the ones about paintings in galleries to see before you die. What John Graham-Cumming has done is compile a list of 128 locations around the world where scientific breakthroughs took place or examples of outstanding engineering can be observed. Each entry includes two or three pages on the museum or whatever, together with another page or two on the science behind the exhibits there. In each case, the science discussed is central to location. The Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan for example is engineered around a giant pendulum known as a 'mass damper' that counteracts the innate swaying characteristic of tall buildings and, in doing so, makes living conditions within the building altogether more pleasant.



It should be noted that these location descriptions and scientific discussions aren't lightweight little things with minimal substance, but solid pieces of writing complete with diagrams and photographs. The overall quality is entirely in keeping with the sort of writing O'Reilly produces in its main fields of computers and information technology.

As you'd expect from a travel book, the entries also include details on entrance fees, visiting hours and so on, but not in a particular obtrusive way. The range of locations is broad but skewed. About one-third are in the United States and about another third in the United Kingdom. The remaining third is scattered around the world, though primarily in Europe with only a handful in Asia and Australia. To be fair, that probably reflects the potential readership of the book just as much as it does anything else, but nonetheless the meagre list of localities associated with Ancient or Renaissance science is inexplicable. There's only a single entry in the section on Italy for example and the absence of the Galileo Museum in Florence is simply unforgivable. There's nothing from Sicily, Greece or Egypt, meaning that the likes of Archimedes and Aristotle are simply not covered by this book at all. For the more adventurous geeks, surely there are places around the Mediterranean or Near-East associated with that period of time when Islamic science was foremost in the world?

Partly this represents a bias towards modern engineering and physics. There are only a few locations concerned with biology, medicine, geology or chemistry. Perhaps that reflects the interests of the geeks most likely to read 'The Geek Atlas'? It's certainly a book most likely to appeal to those with an interest in the 'hard' rather than the 'soft' sciences. This reviewer, being a biologist, is perhaps more aware of this bias than others might be.

In any case, this doesn't diminish from the quality of the book. It's scrupulously well researched, competently written and clearly covers a subject close to the author's heart. The introduction in particular is a paean to conservation of the history of science in the way museums used to do it, with less focus on what the author refers to as the 'wow factor' where a museum has to entertain rather than inform. Although somewhat pricey at $29.99, geeks in the US and UK at least will find this a fun addition to their existing selection of travel books.

Neale Monks

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