07/07/2017

Hidden Wonders To Hit On Your Science Road Trip

24:00 minutes

The mysterious sailing rocks of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Credit: Keith Cuddeback/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ever been to a carnivorous plant garden? How about a nuclear reactor run by undergrads, or a museum full of brains? Those are just a few of the geeky destinations described in “Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.” Co-authors Ella Morton and Dylan Thuras join Ira in this segment to recommend road trip-worthy spots for your summer vacation.

We mapped and curated destinations recommended by Atlas Obscura, SciFri staff, and listeners. Chart out your nerdy road trip below!

Find out more about some of the destinations over at Atlas Obscura!

Segment Guests

Ella Morton

Ella Morton is co-author of Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, and a Senior Editor at Atlas Obscura in New York, New York.

Dylan Thuras

Dylan Thuras is co-author of Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, and co-founder and creative director at Atlas Obscura in Rosendale, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Next up, it’s summer time, and that means it’s time to hit the open road. And being a bunch of geeks here at SciFri we wanted to take a science-themed road trip. Like, how about visiting the Nazca Lines of the North in the California desert? Or how about a mystery that long perplexed hydrologists, a really cool thing, a disappearing waterfall in Minnesota called the Devil’s Kennel? Whoa, I want to go see that. And if it’s too hot to go outside, you can get some peace of mind at a museum full of preserved brains. Well, we’ll show you how to get there.

These are just a few of the obscure gems recommended by my next guests in their book Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the Hidden Wonders of the World. Ella Morton is the co-author and senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and Dylan Thuras is her co-author. He’s also co-founder and creative director of Atlas Obscura, and they’re here with us in our SciFri studios. Welcome.

ELLA MORTON: Hi there.

DYLAN THURAS: Thanks for having us.

IRA FLATOW: And we have a map. You want to do the road tour, we’ve got the map for you. Our destinations on our website, sciencefriday.com/roadtrip, sciencefriday.com/roadtrip. Ella, let’s start off with you. Give me some of your top picks. Because we want to ask our listeners, also, at 844-724-8255, to phone in things they visit. What’s some of your top picks?

ELLA MORTON: Well, one of my favorites is the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which is this museum full of jars of strange and wonderful things. You’ve got a skeleton that looks as though it’s melting, you have this collection of skulls that each one has the manner of death listed– and it’s some very sort of evocative things, like killed in a battle with Austrian sharpshooters. There’s also a paper mache model of a giant distended colon, which is a particular highlight, I’m really into to that one. Yeah.

And there’s also a lithopedion, which is a stone child. And that’s when a fetus starts to grow outside the uterus and calcifies, and the particular specimen that is at the Mutter Museum was in this woman for 24 years without her noticing. So you can go and see that little stone child at this museum, which is just absolutely fascinating.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I’m looking at our Twitter and our calls in, and that was– many people have suggested going. Wait, it’s in Philadelphia, right?

ELLA MORTON: Yes, it’s a particular favorite. And it’s funny, you sort of think of these things as obscure, but when we were on our book tour, we found that people of like mind regarded this place as a highlight.

IRA FLATOW: It certainly is. OK, Dylan, what’s on your top pick there?

DYLAN THURAS: I have a place that most people don’t have any idea exists, called the Mississippi River Basin Model, down in Jackson, Mississippi. And so this was perhaps the greatest scale model ever built. In the 1940s, the US Army Corps of Engineers needed to model hydrology. Basically, they were having a terrible problem with floods. Floods had destroyed huge parts of the country, and so, in the age before computer modeling, when they said let’s model this problem, it meant building a gigantic model.

So over a couple of hundred acres, they built a 1 to 100 model of the entire Mississippi River basin. It’s about eight miles of tiny little streams, and it’s a perfect accurate model of about a third of the US. It started in World War II using prisoners of war as the engineers, actually, and the labor, and it took about 20 plus years, 26 years, to finally complete.

IRA FLATOW: And where do we see it?

DYLAN THURAS: It is now basically abandoned.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right?

DYLAN THURAS: That’s right. The US Army Corps of Engineers left in the ’90s, and the town of Jackson, Mississippi hasn’t really had the funds to keep it up. So it’s in a park called Buddy Butts Park in Jackson, Mississippi. And you can go out there, and people use it to drive [? sea ?] cars on. A lot of people, I think, go there and have no idea what they’re seeing. But what they’re seeing is the remnants of truly the greatest scale model ever constructed.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with the editors of the Atlas Obscura about the road trips you can take. Let me– let’s go see if I can get a quick phone call in before the break here. Let’s go to Nathan in Chicago. Hi, Nathan.

NATHAN: Hello, how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hey there, go ahead.

NATHAN: Yeah, I got a chance a couple years ago to go to Austin, Texas, and on their big kind of hip street, East 6th Street, they have a spot called the Museum of the Weird, which was kind of fun. Not that expensive, either. I believe it was, like, 12 bucks. And if you’re interested in cryptotology, or they had the [INAUDIBLE] of an ice man, they had a couple of the weird displays, like the old bat boys. But the things you would see in the tabloids that you wouldn’t necessarily believe in.

IRA FLATOW: All right.

NATHAN: And at the end, they had one of the tour guides do a little bit of a display where they kind of showed the old tricks where they would take a long nail– witness a person take a long nail, put it in their nostril, and casually take out a hammer and just hammer that little [? buddy ?] straight into their nostril– towards the very end of the museum. So that was a very interesting spot to check out, and not that expensive.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Don’t eat before you go there. That’s like the Mutter Museum, you don’t want to– I think, Ella, you’d probably like a place like that.

ELLA MORTON: Absolutely. And this is sort of a genre that we have. A lot of places in the book is this sort of small museum. We have quite a few involving cryptids, actually. There’s a skunk ape research headquarters in Florida, for example. And the sort of one-person museum is something that we see a lot of. There’s a museum run by one woman that is dedicated to Victorian hair art. Stuff like that we just adore, because it’s clear that the person running it just has this great abiding passion for the subject in question.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. These little– like the giant ball of yarn, that sort of thing. And now there are those small museums.

ELLA MORTON: Absolutely.

DYLAN THURAS: Yeah. I think we especially– like the example that the caller brought up, sort of this classic dime store museum, or these sort of pseudo-scientific places. I think we really– we find them interesting because, well, the science is deeply wrong, the kind of folklore and stories that arise around this stuff is still interesting. It’s a deep sort of part of Americana.

IRA FLATOW: Now, that’s sort of the theme of the Atlas, is places you wouldn’t be thinking of, or find. How do you collect some– do people send stuff in, or are you just out on a road trip someplace?

DYLAN THURAS: So people send stuff in. That’s the whole way it works, is basically people send dozens of things in every day. And it’s incredible that after doing this for five plus years, surprising stuff comes in every single day.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’re going to get back to some more surprising stuff, and also stuff that our listeners will tell us about. Maybe something you can put in the Atlas next edition. Our number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us at SciFri, talking with Ellen Morton and Dylan Thuras, the co-editors, co-authors of the Atlas Obscura. And we’re talking about, where should you go visit? This summer [? I’m going to ?] take a road trip to see obscure things. It’s from the Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders. You can also go to our website. You want to get on the road, sciencefriday.com/roadtrip. We’ll be right back after this break, stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, we’re taking your geeky road trip recommendations with my guests Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton, co-authors of the book Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the Hidden Wonders of the World. And one that’s mentioned in your book, one of the places I discovered by accident– years ago, I was doing a story on the big bang. And I went to New Jersey, and I went to Holmdel, and they were talking about– I was outside looking at this giant horn there, we’re talking about the Big Bang, and sure enough, the background radiation was discovered by accident in that spot.

DYLAN THURAS: One of the great stories of accidental discovery. I mean, they spent– the scientists working there spent so long trying everything they could think of to get rid of this static that was interfering with research they were trying to do. They thought it was pigeon poop, and then it just so happened that another team put out this paper saying, there should be, actually, this kind of background noise that we would hear. And suddenly it was this aha moment. They were never going to get rid of that sound, because that was the sound of the Big Bang.

IRA FLATOW: [? And were lent ?] The Nobel Prize. So antennas and radio telescopes and things are interesting places to visit, to go visit them, right?

DYLAN THURAS: There’s a ton, all over the country. You can do a tour of just those and have a really good time.

IRA FLATOW: Ella, where would you go next? Give me another recommendation.

ELLA MORTON: Oh. Well, this is a slightly different genre, but we’re big fans of bioluminescence at Atlas Obscura, and one example is the synchronized fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.

IRA FLATOW: Stop there. Synchronized?

ELLA MORTON: Yes. They flash at the same time for mating purposes. We’ve just missed this season this year, because it tends to occur over about two weeks at the end of May, beginning of June. But you can go there, there’s even a shuttle in this section of the Great Smokies in Tennessee. And you can just watch the fireflies glow at each other in a synchronized way. It’s a sort of visual orchestra. It’s all together. And there are a few examples of this around the world. It also happens in Malaysia, where they flash at the same time. But we’re big fans of the combination of entomology and glowing.

IRA FLATOW: Right. So let’s glowingly go to the phones. Let’s go to Baltimore. Brandy, welcome to Science Friday.

BRANDY: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

BRANDY: Well, last year, my husband and I were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and we discovered the Museum of Atomic Energy, which tells the whole story of the discovery of the development and use of atomic energy. I’m not the geek in the family, my husband is, so I especially liked the section that takes you to a secret place, Los Alamos, during World War II, and enables you to see how the scientists and their families lived there when no one was supposed to know that they were there. You can also see a replica of Fat Man and Little Boy and go inside a fallout shelter.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I still have plans in my drawer about how to build one. It’s good for people who are not sciencey geeks, and they can understand it a little, is what you’re saying.

BRANDY: Gift shop.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. OK, thanks for the suggestion. Ella? Dylan?

ELLA MORTON: Atomic tourism is a whole thing.

DYLAN THURAS: It’s a world. Isn’t that right?

ELLA MORTON: I was just thinking about, there’s a gravestone just outside Chicago in the Redgate Woods, and it says on it, caution, do not dig. And what’s buried beneath it are the remains of the world’s first artificial nuclear reactor, which was built at the University of Chicago during the Manhattan Project. And so you just walk past this tombstone in a park where this incredible thing happened that went on to change the world, There’s also the Trinity site, where the bomb was first detonated, and where– trinitite?

DYLAN THURAS: Trinitinium, I think.

ELLA MORTON: Yeah, that substance was created.

DYLAN THURAS: Yeah, the sand– basically, when the weapon went off, the sand was turned to a kind of glass, and it can only be found in this site.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to New York, New York, right here. Tyson, welcome to Science Friday.

TYSON: Hi.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

TYSON: Hi, thanks for having me. So I want to talk about House on the Rock in Wisconsin. It’s an hour west of Madison, and basically it’s a gigantic collection of oddities. And it has basically airplane hangars full of [? collections, ?] including a 200-foot long sperm whale being attacked by a giant squid and hundreds of automatic machines that are, like, the size of entire rooms. And no one really knows about it, but it’s just incredible.

IRA FLATOW: Well, the folks in this room were throwing up their hands in joy. Ella, what do you know about this one?

ELLA MORTON: This I’m going to turn over to Dylan, because Dylan is from Minnesota and it involves the childhood road trip.

DYLAN THURAS: This might actually be, like, my conversion to weirdness moment. I went to the House on the Rock on a road trip with my parents when I was 12 years old. And the thing that’s hard to explain to people about this place is, it genuinely takes six hours to walk through. It is gigantic. And it’s this weird sort of liminal place where the real and the unreal come together. That giant sculpture of the squid fighting the whale the size of the Statue of Liberty? Anatomically, very strange. A lot of it was made by local artists. There’s almost nothing like it in the country. It’s got to be one of our greatest national treasures.

IRA FLATOW: All right, that’s a great recommendation. We have some tweets coming in. Tucker notes that at San Francisco Bay, there is a model of the Bay in Sausalito, California.

DYLAN THURAS: Yes. That’s another one of the big hydrological models. It’s a little smaller-scale than the Mississippi River basin, but another just incredible example of– I believe the US Army Corps of Engineers made that one, as well.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Brandon in West Lafayette, Indiana. Hi, Brandon.

BRANDON: Hey.

IRA FLATOW: Hey, go ahead.

BRANDON: Hi, it’s Brandon. Yeah. I’m a scuba diver, and I travel around the country trying to find weird places to dive, and I’ve dove in two different missile silos. There’s one outside of Abilene, Texas that was an Atlas missile silo complex, and then there’s a huge Titan missile silo complex in the Royal City, Washington that you can go in. They’re flooded, there’s about 120 feet of water, and you can scuba dive in right now.

IRA FLATOW: Is there stuff growing in them?

BRANDON: No, it’s just crystal-clear water. And the Washington one still has all the metal cages and the elevators and a lot of the electronics inside it. The one in Texas is pretty much just a concrete tube, but five stories underground, you have to go through the blast doors to dive, and it’s just a pretty cool experience.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, You have to bring your own lighting with you, I imagine.

BRANDON: Yes. Yes, the one in Texas is set up with lights, but the one in Washington state, you have to bring all your own lights. You have to crawl– you have to walk through tunnels where little water is about chest-deep until you get to the silo and then descend. And, yeah, you have to have every light, everything you need, because there’s nothing down there.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, this is not for the amateur. Got to know what you’re doing.

BRANDON: Yeah. I mean they’re fairly safe dives. There’s still air above you, you’re not completely underwater. Most normal divers can do it, and you could even tour some of these without being a diver.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s a great suggestion. Thanks, Brandon, and happy diving. You know about this? Have you heard about this?

ELLA MORTON: I have not. There’s a [? titan ?] missile museum in Arizona, but it’s certainly not underwater.

DYLAN THURAS: Yeah, the specific overlap of dive spots and atomic tourism is like– that’s a level deep.

ELLA MORTON: That’s our sweet spot.

DYLAN THURAS: Yeah, totally.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go back to the neighborhood to Tulsa, and Laurel in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hi, welcome.

LAUREL: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

LAUREL: I was calling to recommend the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. They have over 300 animal skeletons, including a whale and a giraffe. It’s really cool.

IRA FLATOW: You know about that?

ELLA MORTON: Oh, yes, it’s the home of skulls unlimited.

DYLAN THURAS: Skulls– the best place to get your skulls, whatever you need.

ELLA MORTON: Yes, it’s a skull-cleaning business, and it’s combined with the Museum of Osteology. So you can send them your carcass of an animal, and they will clean it and provide you with a mounted skeleton.

IRA FLATOW: Do they use those beetles?

ELLA MORTON: Yes, exactly. And it’s fascinating to watch these flesh-eating beetles that will eat– they’re dermestid, I think they’re called?

IRA FLATOW: Dermestid beetles, yeah.

ELLA MORTON: They will eat it down to its bones, it’s fascinating.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So much– so many things to do. Let me go back to the phone. Let’s go to David in Post Mills, Vermont, David? Welcome to Science Friday.

DAVID: Post Mills. I’d like to recommend something in Paris, France. There’s a series of brass monuments set into the ground in concrete sidewalks and things, and even in the courtyard of the Louvre. It’s a monument to an original meridian line. There was a meridian line in Paris before Greenwich was established as a standard. And there are probably 30 or 40 of these medallions set in the ground. And they’re just there to walk by and see, and it’s just a nice piece of history.

DYLAN THURAS: Yeah, those are totally amazing. And all the kind of– that period of establishing all of the standards, the moment when no one was sure where the meridian line was going to be, the US kind of wanted it, Jefferson was pushing for that. But Paris had a ton of this. I know they also– they had the meter reference. When they decided to go to that system, they created a little marble thing so people could go and say, oh, this is the exact length of the meter. It’s actually a little off, so they had to– when they made metal rods later.

And Paris is still home to the only reference for standards, which is the kilogram. Everything else has gone to physics, some fraction of a cesium atom for the second. But the kilogram is still a hunk of metal. And the main one, the international kilogram prototype, is in Paris, and there’s others all over the world. And every once in a while, they all come together and they weigh them all and they make sure that they still weigh the same– which they kind of don’t.

IRA FLATOW: We just did a story. That is– I heard a story about them trying to do away with that standard, because–

DYLAN THURAS: Everyone– I’ve talked to the guys at NIST, the National Institutes for Standards and Technology, and it drives them out of their mind that there is still a chunk of metal that is how we measure this.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, there are a lot of markers, everywhere. You know, you look down on the ground, and wherever you go, sometimes there’s Geological Survey marker that says, this is exactly where you’ve been.

DYLAN THURAS: Yeah. Always read the plaque.

IRA FLATOW: How about close to us, in Canada? Any funny places in Canada that you might suggest that we go visit?

DYLAN THURAS: Sure. I have one that I’m really dying to get to, which is a very peculiar type of telescope. It’s a mercury telescope. So this was something that was theorized by Isaac Newton, that you could– when you spin a liquid, it forms a little parabola, and with something shiny like mercury, you could use it to make a huge lens. But it took a really long time for the technology to sort of catch up with the idea.

So this particular one, which is the largest in the world, was only made in 2003, and provides a really clear, beautiful picture of the stars. There are some downsides. One, it’s a giant dish of mercury, which is fairly toxic, and two, it can’t be tilted, so it only points straight up into the sky. But NASA still has plans to maybe try and build one of these on the moon.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, Public International. We’re talking about where to take a road trip. You still have the whole summer ahead of you, you want to drive around, see some geeky, science things with Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton, co-authors of the book Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the Hidden Wonders of the World. And let’s talk about an event that’s coming up that we’re all hoping to see in our own way, and that’s the solar eclipse on August 21. And we’ve actually teamed up with you folks at Atlas Obscura for an event in Oregon. Tell us about that.

DYLAN THURAS: Yeah. So that weekend, the weekend of the 19 leading up to the morning of the 21 at 11:00 o’clock, we’re doing a huge celebration of the eclipse. So in the Snake River Valley in eastern Oregon, we are getting scientists and musicians and artists. National Parks at Night, which shows you how to take photographs of the night sky, will be there. We’re doing a science of brewing thing there, and–

IRA FLATOW: We’ll bring people in.

DYLAN THURAS: You guys will be there, as well. Science Friday will be there alongside all these incredible scientists and musical acts, and it’s going to be a huge, huge celebration of this celestial event.

IRA FLATOW: And while people are on the road to that event, they could stop in at these other places.

DYLAN THURAS: That’s right, it is the perfect opportunity–

ELLA MORTON: That’s a wonderful idea.

DYLAN THURAS: –for the great summer road trip.

IRA FLATOW: The great summer road– and I’ll just repeat that we have that great summer road trip, the destinations are on our map at sciencefriday.com/roadtrip. It’s sort of a Google Map up there. You can see all the sites up there. Speaking of Oregon, I think I have another call. I have just time for another call from Mike in New York. Hi, welcome.

MIKE: Hi, yes. I have some Oregon ideas for you guys. Not long ago, I did as I always do in the summertime, I spent some time at a fire lookout tower out west. And this happened to be in Oregon, and I stumbled across two sort of plant-related sites that might interest you. Maybe you might want to go there during your eclipse adventure.

One is the humongous fungus, which is purported to be the largest living organism. Not much to see, frankly, except devastation that plant does to trees, because it’s an underground organism. And then something a little bit more visible, about maybe 100, 150 miles away is a colony of cobra lilies, which is an example of a carnivorous plant, and they’re found only in northern California and southern Oregon. And so you can actually hit both of these sites within a day road trip.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, thank you, Mike. Yea, those are great suggestions. I saw Ella jumping up and down at the humongous fungus.

ELLA MORTON: Yes. Well, I have a bone to pick with the humongous funguses, or fungi, because they stole the crown for the largest organism from Pando, the trembling giant, this [? clonal ?] colony of quaking aspens in Utah, which is beautiful but it’s been suffering from blight and drought. And so I think these fungus mats in Oregon have stolen its crown. But Pando shall rise again, I just want you to know. I have believed that it will rise again.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I want to thank both of you for coming by. And, this is a great book. The Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the Hidden Wonders of the World. It’s huge, so it’s a great coffee table book, but you want to look through it, because it’s got all kinds of great stuff in it. And we’re reminding everybody about our event in Oregon on the 21 of August up there. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today. Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton, co-authors of the book Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the Hidden Wonders of the World. And I thank you all on the phones for those great suggestions.

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