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The man behind the essential geek travel guide

45 Minutes on IM John Graham-Cumming wrote what has become one of the only travel books geeks need. With CNET Road Trip 2010 starting Thursday, I wanted to get his sense of the geek world.

I'm about to start Road Trip 2010, my fifth annual journey through a region of the United States in search of some of the most interesting places to write about and photograph.

As in previous years, the trip will focus heavily on what interests me--and hopefully my readers--as a self-professed geek. After all, this blog is called Geek Gestalt. And that will take me to high-tech research labs, military bases, a motorcycle factory, NASA facilities, and much more.

"Geek Atlas" author John Graham-Cumming
"Geek Atlas" author John Graham-Cumming. Jonathan Histed

Being a traveling geek reminded me of the great book "The Geek Atlas" by British author John Graham-Cumming. That book, as its title implies, is a compendium of some of the world's most fascinating geek-centric destinations. It's a must-have for any traveler who appreciates fields like science, computers, electronics, and such.

That's why I decided that the final pre-Road Trip edition of 45 Minutes on IM needed to be with Graham-Cumming--especially since the publisher of "Geek Atlas," O'Reilly, generously agreed to provide me with 20 copies of the book to give away to readers during the trip.

Last week, Graham-Cumming took 45 minutes out of his schedule to sit down and talk over instant message with me about the book, his approach to traveling as a geek, and why his shyness didn't stop him from getting the British government to apologize for its terrible treatment of the famous scientist Alan Turing.

Q: Welcome to 45 Minutes on IM. How did you come up with the idea for the "Geek Atlas"?
John Graham-Cumming: I came up with the idea while working in Munich when I visited the Deutsches Museum. I had never heard of it, and I discovered it's a fantastic science museum that clearly rivals places like the Science Museum in London and the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. I thought to myself: someone must have written a travel book for nerds. A Lonely Planet for Scientists. I really wanted it because I was embarrassed that I didn't know about the Deutsches Museum. That evening I made a list of places I'd been around the world and came up with about 70. From that, the idea of the "Geek Atlas" was born.

Often, publishers considering authors will say that it's not just that you have the idea, but that you're the right person to write a book. So what made you the right person to do the book?
Graham-Cumming: I had written a lot of articles in the past and I guess they figured that I could write it. And I had traveled an enormous amount. As well as working in Germany, I've lived in the U.S., the U.K., and France. And I seem to have spent a lot of my professional life up in the air. And on all those trips for business I've been sneaking off to see cool science places.

How many of the 128 locations in the book have you visited yourself?
Graham-Cumming: Most but not all. The initial list of about 70 were all places I'd been. Then I drew up another list of places and started visiting them. There are still a few I haven't been to. I haven't trekked to the Magnetic North Pole (although it would be neat), and I haven't visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

How did you come up with the list?
Graham-Cumming: I did an enormous amount of research. Initially I thought that I would ask in my social network and they'd have good suggestions, but there were only a few (such as the Horn Antenna in Holmdel, N.J.). So I started calling tourist offices and researching records (such as the National Historic Places in the U.S.). Then I had a target list of people I wanted to mention. For example, I really thought Nikola Tesla was important and that mentioning how A.C. power works was important. So I researched the Tesla places.

This must have been fun research?
Graham-Cumming: Yes, it was great fun. The best part was that the book consists of two parts to each place: the tourist information and the actual science. I was adamant that the book would have lots and lots of science in it, so I had to spend a lot of time learning about some topics and talking to people so I could explain in a very small space the science behind each place.

You mentioned that there's a few places you haven't been. Do you intend to complete the circuit yourself?
Graham-Cumming: Yes, I absolutely do intend to see the remaining places.

Let's talk traveling. How much do you travel and for what kinds of purposes (besides working on Geek Atlas)?
Graham-Cumming: I work in the computer industry and my job has taken me to lots of places because I tend to be one of those geeks who can talk to suits. That's a valuable skill and so all the companies I've worked for have liked to send me to their customers (and potential customers). I've traveled all over the U.S. and Europe and visited chunks of Asia and the South Pacific. An upcoming trip to India is for work: I'm going to Bangalore. I've never been there before and am really looking forward to it. At the moment I'm somewhere other than home about every three weeks.

What's your favorite method of travel?
Graham-Cumming: It depends. I actually like flying a lot. I recently wrote a couple of articles, one called "Long Haul Heaven," about why I like taking really long flights, and a companion piece called "How to sleep on a long haul flight." But I've also loved some train journeys (The Eurostar from London to Paris is amazing, and I used to take the Acela from New York to Washington, D.C. a lot), and I usually commute to work on a London bus.

Ooh! How do you sleep on a long flight? Or a short one, for that matter?
Graham-Cumming: Well, there are quite a few tips in my article, but basically you need to get into the sleeping state of mind. Essentially I get on the plane and I sleep. I don't eat, watch TV, or anything. My total purpose is sleep. This usually annoys colleagues who are flying with me.

Let's talk airplanes. What's your favorite?
Graham-Cumming: I haven't flown on the Airbus A380 yet, so I want to do that. But it depends on the trip. I always enjoy going on the Boeing 747 because it's a gigantic, majestic beast and its interior makes me nostalgic for something I never saw: flying in the 1960s and 1970s. The Lockheed L-1011 is a bit like that also, but feels like a troop transporter. I also have a soft spot for the Boeing MD-80 which I've spent countless hours on in the U.S.

Well, given that, how could you not have included Boeing's 747 factory in Everett, Wash., in the book?
Graham-Cumming: I didn't include it mainly because I had included Airbus because the A380 was making a splash at the time the book was coming out and Boeing's 787 Dreamliner wasn't really ready. It's definitely near the top of the list for a "Geek Atlas, Volume 2." I get the same questions about certain NASA sites. There are only so many you can put in one book, and people already think I included too many radio telescopes. It's a balancing act. And people who think I've made a mistake are welcome to got to geekatlas.com and make suggestions. I'm very open to learning about new places.

Will there definitely be a second volume of the book?
Graham-Cumming: It's not decided yet. The publisher approached me about it. But a book the size and density of "The Geek Atlas" is a lot of work. I spent six months in front of a computer writing it. So, it's really for me to decide. If I get a good enough list of places then I'll do it.

If you could travel to just one place, where would it be? And why?
Graham-Cumming: The International Space Station. If I had the money that's where I'd go. I suspect that seeing the Earth from above like that would be an incredibly moving experience.

Let's say you're limited to terra firma.
Graham-Cumming: I'd like to go to some of the places in the Middle East where a lot of mathematics was worked on. Many of our words, such as algebra, have Arabic roots, and the mathematicians in Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries were doing amazing things, long, long ago. Of course, Yemen and similar countries are hard for a Westerner to visit, but I think it would be fascinating. Perhaps there's even a "Geek Atlas: The Ancient World" in it.

What are some tips you'd have for geek travelers?
Graham-Cumming: I think the key thing about geek travel is that you need to incorporate the actual science behind the destination. For example, if you visit the Roentgen Museum in Germany then read up on how X-rays are generated (which is a totally fascinating topic) you'll get more out of your visit.

Also, talk to people. Many places have really knowledgeable staff. For example, at Bletchley Park in the U.K. many of the people who do the tours actually worked there during the Second World War. Or at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., there are guides who worked on the gear you are seeing.

Have you run into people "in the wild" carrying your book?
Graham-Cumming: Once. I ran into someone at the Natural History Museum in London who had my book. I didn't dare tell them I was the author.

Why not? I'm sure that person would have loved to have met you.
Graham-Cumming: Who knows? I was shy and thought I might be showing off. I am British after all.

Although I ended up being the center of attention with the Alan Turing petition. So who knows.

What was that?
Graham-Cumming: Last year, I decided would campaign for an official apology for the prosecution and chemical castration of the British mathematician, code breaker, genius, etc. Alan Turing. I singlehandedly ran a campaign to petition the British government and I ended up succeeding. Prime Minister Gordon Brown officially apologized for the treatment of Turing last September. About 35,000 signed the petition.

Last question. I love doing instant message interviews because it allows my interviewee to be thoughtful and articulate, and because I get a perfect transcript. But, it's also because it's good for multitasking. So, be frank with me. What else were you doing while we've been doing this interview?
Graham-Cumming: Good question. I actually wasn't doing much. I was just keeping an eye on the Roomba, which is gliding around vacuuming the floor.

Well, thanks so much for doing this. I really appreciate it
Graham-Cumming: You're welcome.

Starting tomorrow, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my preparations for the project on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook.