Spring Break 2011: Los Alamos?

Feeling uninspired by your vacation options this spring break? A new book offers some off-the-beaten-path ideas for the vacationing scientist -- and the part-time science buff.

March 18, 2010

Feeling uninspired by your vacation options this spring break? A new book offers some off-the-beaten-path ideas for the vacationing scientist -- and the part-time science buff.

Duane S. Nickell, a high school physics teacher and adjunct faculty member in physics at Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis, was inspired to write Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Physics and Chemistry Sites Across America -- and its 2008 predecessor, Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Astronomy and Space Exploration Sites Across America (both are published by Rutgers University Press) -- after taking a scientific tour of Europe in 2002.

"To help me with the trip, I had a book called The Scientific Traveler: A Guide to the People, Places, and Institutions of Europe," Nickell told Inside Higher Ed. "When I got back from the trip, it occurred to me that no such book existed for the U.S. So, since writing a book had always been on my 'bucket list,' I decided to give it a shot."

The books offer a wide variety of suggestions for the science-loving traveler, from the familiar (any reader with even the mildest interest in space exploration is likely to be aware of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum) to the bizarre (who knew that Roswell, N.M. holds a four-day UFO festival each year?) to the now-you're-just-rationalizing -- the physics and chemistry guidebook features three breweries, because after all "there's a lot of chemistry involved in brewing beer" (though at least if you visit the MillerCoors brewery in Golden, Colorado, you can justify the trip by also stopping to see the National Renewable Energy Laboratory -- preferably before you tour the brewery). The latest guidebook also includes eight universities that may be of particular interest to the scientific traveler, though none of them are likely to come as a surprise to anyone in academe (yes, Virginia, there is science at Caltech).

Ten for the Road: Nickell's Top Destinations for the Scientific Traveler
1. National Air and Space Museum (Washington, D.C.)
2. The Exploratorium (San Francisco)
3. American Museum of Natural History (New York City)
4. Los Alamos, N.M. -- the "birthplace of the atomic bomb"
5. Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum (Chicago)
6. Albert Einstein Memorial (Washington, D.C.)
7. Hoover Dam (near Boulder City, N.V.)
8. Oak Ridge, Tenn. -- site of materials development for the Manhattan Project
9. Meteor Crater (near Winslow, Ariz.)
10. Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at the Harvard University Science Center (Cambridge, Mass.)

Still, even the most obvious entries merit a look for the accompanying contextual information and anecdotes, on which Nickell, a history buff, does not stint. For instance, Robert Millikan, a Nobel laureate in physics and the first leader of Caltech, began to study physics as an undergraduate classics major at Oberlin -- when his Greek professor proposed that the then-sophomore teach an introductory physics class the next fall, as the college's faculty boasted no one qualified to teach the subject. "When Millikan explained that he didn't know anything about physics either," Nickell writes, "the professor replied that anyone who could do as well as Millikan had done in his Greek class could teach physics."

The books also explain some of the science relevant to each site, but in layman's terms, so even the STEM-phobic might consider learning a bit of science while on summer vacation – or throwing in a just-for-kicks diversion on a business trip.

With Gus Grissom's capsule, in Mitchell, Ind.

Committed to attending a conference in Portland, Ore.? You can stop by Linus Pauling's boyhood home while you're there. Research to do in Indianapolis? Take a detour to the Gus Grissom Memorial in nearby Mitchell, Ind.; if nothing else, the story of the astronaut's blemished career and tragic death (yes, it's in the book, along with all the sordid details of the "sandwich affair") will make even the most burdensome summer project seem like blissful good fortune by comparison.

One disappointment: while the guidebooks discuss many famous figures from scientific history, including background about their lives and specifics of the work they did, the women of science are thin on the ground -- particularly when it comes to physics and chemistry. (Perhaps a later edition of the guidebook will note that those who visit Harvard to bask in its "rich scientific heritage," as Nickell suggests, could make a brief stop by the National Bureau of Economic Research to reflect on whether this absence results from "issues of intrinsic aptitude," as Harvard's then-president Lawrence Summers proposed there in 2005.)

Duane Nickell's Ultimate
5-Day Scientific Road Trip

"Start in Santa Fe, N.M.... drive west to visit Los Alamos and Chaco Canyon, then drive south to Albuquerque and the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, then head southeast to see the tourist trap known as Roswell (with a detour to Carlsbad Caverns -- not in my books, but a must-see), then west to the National Solar Observatory and the New Mexico Museum of Space History, White Sands Missile Range, and Trinity Site in and around Alamagordo, then further west to the Very Large Array Radio Telescope. (I actually did this trip!)"

Asked about the dearth of sites related to female scientists in his books, Nickell explained: "Unfortunately, the physical sciences (especially physics) has been and remains a very male-dominated field. … The other problem is that to be an entry in the book, there must be some place (a house or museum) to visit, and I just couldn’t find any…."

Nickell did point out that many of history's notable astronomers were women, and Maria Mitchell has an entry in the earlier of the two guidebooks. But those who really want to pay tribute to a famous female physicist or chemist, Nickell said, would do better to visit France, where they can see Marie Curie's restored laboratory in Paris.

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