Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler

24 12 2011
Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler

Cover, Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler.

It’s a little late for holiday shopping, but if that Powell’s gift card you received from your grandparents last week is burning a hole in your pocket, I’ve got a book suggestion: Dr. Duane S. Nickell’s Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Astronomy and Space Exploration Sites Across America.

No matter how much touring you’ve done around the U.S., chances are you’ll find something new in this book. For instance, while I wasn’t surprised by any of the sites listed in the chapters on optical or radio telescopes, I did flag a couple of entries in the chapter on space museums (specifically, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Museum and the Virginia Air and Space Center). Ditto for the chapter on astronomers, astronauts and Einstein. It might have occurred to me to seek out buildings associated with Einstein, but I don’t think I would have sought out the Maria Mitchell House without a prompt.

I like the structure of this book. Although you can look up sites by location (there’s an index-by-state at the back of the volume), the chapters are arranged according to theme and chronology. This has allowed Dr. Nickell to discuss sites that are separated geographically yet relate to each other historically, such as the various centers used by NASA, or the multiple observatories that exchanged technology, ideas and personnel during the late 19th-early 20th century.

Some of the information is already dated (for instance, you can no longer watch a Space Shuttle launch), but the author has provided the URLs and other contact information for each site described in the book. It’s easy enough to get that off the Internet. What makes the book valuable is Nickell’s contextualization of each site. For example, I appreciated the discussion of the salvaging of Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 from the ocean floor. It’s an interesting question: who owns are space heritage? The Discovery Channel paid for the search, but the Kansas Cosmophere and Space Museum claims ownership. The Cosmosphere restored the spacecraft and now has it on display in its museum. Nickell suggests the recovery and restoration occurred against the wishes of Gus Grissom’s widow (and indeed an article in the L.A. Times bears out that assertion). I’m not sure I’d want to be the one to explain to Grissom’s family why national heritage trumps its wishes, even while I understand the utilitarian imperative behind national education and the value of communal memory.

The writing is engaging, the content is interesting. My best advice: buy a copy and after you read it, tuck it under the front seat of the car (next to your Roadside Guide to Geology) so it will be handy on the next road trip.

p.s. Nickell also has a guidebook for physics and chemistry sites in the U.S. Yay, Fermilab!