Summer and Easter vacations at our house always meant going to some scientific site, either Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where my father did research at the Marine Biological Laboratory, or an anatomists’ convention, or on some other trip, like our mid-40s visit and tour of what would become the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
So I’m intrigued by the sight-seeing potential of a new Rutgers University Press book, Duane S. Nickell’s “Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Physics and Chemistry Sites Across America” ($19.95 and, full disclosure, I found it in the Princeton Public Library but also received a review copy). Take it on your next vacation — or college tour.
I checked out what Nickell said about Princeton. I’ve read, written about, and gone on many Princeton walking tours, but was delighted to find some new information on, for instance, the Joseph Henry House (the yellow house that belonged to the famous physicist is close to Nassau Street) and Henry’s artifacts in the Jadwin physics building display (including the first battery brought to America). Nickell points visitors to Landau’s mini-museum on Einstein (to which I brought my granddaughters, pictured) and to the scientific luminaries in Princeton cemetery, as well as to the more obvious choices.
In the “people” chapter on physicists Nickell devotes several pages each to Henry and Einstein and also includes Richard Feynman (who studied here) and J. Robert Oppenheimer (former head of the Institute for Advanced Study and famously targeted by McCarthy).
It’s organized in narrative style but has a good index. After chapters on physicists (Ben Franklin, Count Rumford, Henry, Robert Millikan, Robert Goddard, Arthur Compton, Enrico Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Feynman) and chemists (Joseph Priestley, George Washington Carver, Irving Langmuir, and Linus Pauling), he brings the reader to universities that emphasize science (UC Berkeley, CalTech, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Yale, and Princeton). Then he covers the National Laboratories and touches on particle accelerators, nuclear weapons, energy, and chemistry in industry, finishing up with the best science museums, including two in Philadelphia, the Franklin Institute and a sleeper, the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum at 315 Chestnut Street.
As good as it is, it is by no means complete. Nickell lists four sites in New Jersey (Institute for Advanced Study, the Einstein House, the Joseph Henry House, and Princeton University, all in Princeton.) Perhaps because he focused on universities and national laboratories, he didn’t include Thomas Edison’s former laboratory, the National Historical Park in West Orange. And though Nickell devotes several pages to the larger-than-life sculpture of Einstein, by Robert Berks, in Washington, D.C., he makes no reference to the Berks “head of Einstein” sculpture at EMC Square (Princeton Borough Hall). He probably did his Princeton research before that was installed. And the Liberty Science Center didn’t make the cut. Maybe in the next edition.
Based in Indianapolis, Nickell teaches at the high school and college level. He wont the Presidential award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching, the nation’s highers honor for science and mathematics teachers. This is the second in a series that includes a guidebook to astronomy and space exploration sites.
As the author suggests, visiting the science meccas may “pique the curiosity of a young mind and open it to the possibility of a scientific career.” That didn’t work for me; maybe my seven-year-old mind was intimidated by trying to figure out the concept of nuclear energy at Oak Ridge. More likely it was because I didn’t have terrific classroom science teachers like Nickell.