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24 July 2019

Four Destinations for Science-minded Tourists

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What for many is the longest holiday of the year offers the opportunity to disconnect from everything that keeps us busy the rest of the year. But rest and relaxation don’t mean you have to disconnect your brain as well: for the most restless minds, here’s a brief list of some tourist destinations that will delight those who also want to take science with them on vacation.

Science in the City of Art

As one of the nerve centres of world art, Florence, the capital of Tuscany, receives millions of visitors every year, crowding its churches and museums. However, most of them leave the city without getting to know one of its greatest jewels, which is not exactly hidden from view: just around the corner from the Uffizi Gallery, bordering the river Arno, is the Galileo Museum, an institution that reveals how the powerful Tuscan dynasties, Medici and Lorraine, were also great patrons of scientific development.

Galileo’s two telescopes and, framed, the lens with which he discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter. Credit: Javier Yanes

The museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of ancient scientific instruments, which provide an overview of Tuscany’s fundamental contributions to chemistry, medicine, electricity and electromagnetism. But undoubtedly the stars of the collection are the devices built by the Tuscan astronomer Galileo Galilei, and especially the two telescopes made by him that are preserved today, along with the lens through which in 1610 he discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter.

From Hawaii to the heavens

The Hawaiian archipelago is a world-class tourist destination, thanks to the beaches, surfing, its lush tropical landscapes and even its own style of shirts. All this could convey the feeling that the island state is touristy and over-developed. Nothing could be further from the truth: on the island called Hawaii, or simply the Big Island, a small adventure awaits those who wish to ascend to the top of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano, where the largest concentration of astronomical observatories in the world is located.

The Mauna Kea access route departs from Saddle Road, the only road that crosses the interior of the island linking the coastal towns of Hilo and Kona. During the ascent, it is essential to stop at the visitor’s station, at an elevation of 2,790 metres, not only for its informative value, but also for the need to acclimatise; in two hours you can ascend from sea level to the 4,200 metre-high summit, making altitude sickness a real risk, and thus pregnant women, small children and people with health problems are discouraged from ascending to the top.

Astronomical observatories on top of Mauna Kea. Credit: Javier Yanes

The ascent to the summit is free, but it must be done in a 4×4 and only if the car rental company authorises it. Both the information centre and several agencies organise visits to the summit, where the sky is exceptionally clear and dry. Up there, above the clouds, the desolate Martian-looking volcanic landscape contrasts with the futuristic image of the 13 telescopes that explore the sky in the visible, infrared, sub-millimetre and radio spectrum. Observatories generally cannot be visited on their own, but the Keck has a gallery open to the public. The top should be abandoned at nightfall, but the visitor’s centre remains open for observation of the night sky.

The geological photo of the extinction of the dinosaurs

66 million years ago, an asteroid collided with the Earth on today’s Mexican Yucatan peninsula. According to the most generally accepted hypothesis, that catastrophe was key to the extinction of most dinosaurs and a multitude of other species. From the world as it was before that cataclysm, today we have a myriad of fossils that have opened a window to the era of the great reptiles. But in different parts of the world it is possible to discover the trace that catastrophic event left in the rock pages of the history of the Earth.

The cliffs of Stevns Klint, Credit: Ragnar1904

The so-called K-Pg Limit (Cretaceous-Paleogene, formerly called KT, for Cretaceous-Tertiary), a stratum rich in iridium, was originally discovered by researchers Luis and Walter Alvarez in the Italian town of Gubbio, where it can be seen as a thin band of dark sediment in the cut of the road just outside the village. In Europe, other places conducive to seeing this transition in the rock are the flysch of Zumaia (Spain) or the limestone cliffs of Stevns Klint (Denmark), among others, while in the USA it can be observed in places like Raton Basin (New Mexico and Colorado) or Hell Creek (Montana). The global reference for the K-Pg Limit can be found in El Kef (Tunisia).

The footprint on Earth of the giant leap to the Moon

In the summer of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first of the six manned missions that took humans to the Moon, there is no institution connected to this feat that has not put on its Sunday best to commemorate that historic moment. But it is undoubtedly the perfect opportunity to approach the place where it all began, the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral (Florida).

Eugene Cernan lunar suit and lunar roving vehicle in Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Daderot

Just an hour from Orlando’s theme parks, the base from which all the Apollo missions and the now mythical Space Shuttles lifted off offers enough incentives to plan an entire day’s visit. The exhibitions, presentations and the IMAX cinema are the aperitif —which includes the Atlantis shuttle— but without a doubt the highlight is the bus tour that shows the historic launching platforms, the rocket assembly building and the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where a real rocket and rocks brought back from the terrestrial satellite are exhibited, among other artefacts from the Apollo era. As could not be otherwise in this land of the amusement park, you can also experience the sensation of a launch into space, as well as the training of astronauts and the simulation of a Martian base.

Javier Yanes


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