The Experimental Traveler: Take A Science Vacation

From physics meccas like Lawrence Livermore Lab to rock formations like Mammoth Cave and the Grand Canyon, there are plenty of ways to fit science into a summer getaway. National Geographic Traveler Editor-in-Chief Keith Bellows offers travel tips for a scientific summer vacation.

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IRA FLATOW, Host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Looking for something fun to do these dog days of summer, something different instead of a dip in your backyard pool? Why not mosey on down to a local tidal pool and watch the crabs play? Or how about picking up a birding book or a botany guide and learning - learn something about what's living right in your own backyard from the comfort of your hammock, of course.

If you need an excuse to hit the road, you can get a one-of-a-kind geology lesson exploring the Grand Canyon or the geysers and colorful pools of Yellowstone or even underground lava tubes with the help of a flashlight.

And if air conditioning is your prerequisite, and on a day like today it might be, there are hundreds of great science museums all across the country, mountaintop observatories, physics meccas like Lawrence Livermore Lab in Northern California, where you can see lots of geeky stuff, like the world's largest laser.

So how are you spending the summer? Do you have some scientific itinerary of your own that you would like to share with us? Maybe you want to share a favorite spot from a past vacation. We'd like to hear from you. We want to hear your suggestions. Give us a call, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And if you'd rather tweet us, you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, or go to our website at sciencefriday.com and leave a suggestion there or our Facebook page - /scifri.

Here to help us along with some suggestions is my guest, Keith Bellows, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, author of the forthcoming book "100 Places That Will Change Your Child's Life." He joins us from our studios in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

KEITH BELLOWS: Thanks, Ira, nice to be here.

FLATOW: Because of the weather for this weekend, as we know it is, people want to stay indoors. Let's start with that. What museums would you recommend to visit?

BELLOWS: Well, of course it depends whether you're on the East Coast or the West Coast. My favorite museum in the country is the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which is really one of the great classic museums. It was - you know, I took my - who's now 24 - I took my son there when he was about five.

We spent, gosh, six hours there. So you know, any museum is good in this weather, or you can go to Tuktoyaktuk, where you can see pingos in Northern Canada. I mean, you don't always have to go inside if you want to find a little bit of science.

FLATOW: Yeah, and maybe going north might be a little cooler.

BELLOWS: Indeed.

FLATOW: Crossing the border. Let's talk about outdoorsy stuff. People - I mentioned Mammoth Cave. Where is that? Tell us about what's so interesting about that.

BELLOWS: That's Kentucky. It is, believe it or not, the world's longest known cave. Obviously we don't know where they all are. But it's about 400 miles of interconnected passages. They think there's actually about 1,000 miles down there, but they just don't know yet.

So they're all like spending a lot of time. We see a lot of grant applications at the National Geographic about, gosh, can we get a little bit of money to fund the next mile? But it's all down there.

FLATOW: And of course there's the number one place on the list, which is the Grand Canyon.

BELLOWS: Yeah, you know, I sort of call that the rock sandwich because you can really see the entire world in front of you. If you think about it, if you can get to the place where you can see it from the side, every single layer is a piece of the world being laid down. So the entire world is there.

And that's an amazing thing for kids or even adults to see, is that this idea that you can actually see in profile the world unfold.

FLATOW: How far down do you have to go?

BELLOWS: Well, you have to go - well, actually most people do not go far enough because they spend their time on the lip, on the edge. But if you can get into - and one of the things, the National Park Service has this north rim, one-hour or half-day mule ride that's designed specifically to get you down there so that you can actually see it in profile.

FLATOW: Wow, and of course high on your list during the indoor part might be your aquariums. There are some great aquariums. I think one of my favorites is the Monterrey Bay Aquarium.

BELLOWS: Yeah, that's my favorite too. But you know, the really surprising one is the Georgia Aquarium. You know, we all hear about the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, and it's incredibly impressive, but the Georgia Aquarium is the world's largest aquarium.

We're talking about there are more animals or more creatures than any other aquarium, and they're all in 10 million gallons of water. So it's - you know, it's a bit of surprise because we always assume the best aquarium is going to be right on the water. No.

FLATOW: Here in New York we have our treasure, the Bronx Zoo, but there are other great zoos in the country to visit too.

BELLOWS: Well, oh, absolutely. Columbus zoo, Jack Hannah, of course we all know him as sort of TV personality, but the Columbus zoo, 8,000 animals representing over 700 species. This is a really - it may be one of our leading zoos. I would put it up in the top five.

FLATOW: Can you actually learn anything scientifically in these places, or are they - you know, more just to watch the animals?

BELLOWS: I think you can learn something scientifically anywhere you are. And that's - of course you can. And it's all about the questions you ask and how well-prepared you are. So I'm a parent. I take my - you know, I take McKenzie(ph), who's my daughter, and Chase(ph), my son, and they're both under eight years old. Yeah, they can learn.

I mean, they ask questions, and if you listen to what they have to ask, and you're a little bit prepared - and that of course is the big trick for parents, you can really get them to dive into science, sort of in action, if you will.

FLATOW: Well, we've asked our listeners to chime in on their recommendations. Let's go to Beth(ph) in Orange Beach, Alabama. Hi, Beth.

BETH: Hello. Speaking of diving, my husband and I are avid cave divers. Next week, we are headed to Fort White, Florida, to go cave diving. We can see fossils that are embedded in the walls. We can see the troglodytes that live in the caves like blind catfish and albino crawfish and some amazing geologic formations. It's always cool, 72 degrees.

FLATOW: As an old SCUBA diver, I've got to give you credit for going underwater in a cave. I would not get within 100 yards of caves. It's very dangerous, too, but as long as you do it safely, it's a good place to try, you're saying.

BETH: Yes, it's a great way to get out of the heat. As soon as you get down on the Sewanee River or on the Santa Fe River, you're out of the sunshine, you're in all the overhanging oaks with all the Spanish moss. The water temperature is always 72. So it drops down from, you know, 90 degrees down into the upper 70s, lower 80s, just in air temperature right around the water.

And then you're just freezing by the time you get out. So it's fantastic for beating the heat.

FLATOW: Certainly this summer. Thanks a lot, Beth, for suggesting that.

BETH: All right, thank you.

FLATOW: Have a good cave dive. 1-800-989-8255. Keith, a lot of people do cave diving.

BELLOWS: They do, and I'm terrified of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BELLOWS: It's like I get the idea. I think it's an incredible thing. But it's - I'm a bit claustrophobic. So I prefer to stay a little bit above ground. But for those of you who can do it, go for it.

FLATOW: What about - I mentioned some of the big national laboratories. Can we - will they actually let us in and look around there?

BELLOWS: Yeah, you know, they really will. Well, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is probably the granddaddy. This laboratory is basically charged with insuring the nation's security through scientific research and engineering and such like that.

But you can get in there. They have a discovery center. It gives you a little bit of a glimpse of what the state-of-the-art research that's going on. There are tours. They're not - you can't just turn up and go every day, but there's - I think it's - yeah, there are tours for adults on Tuesday, yes, and, you know, MIT Lab has some access, not a lot. But these are the places where science is being made.

FLATOW: I have a - here's a tweet that came in from Tony Perry(ph), who says: Go to Maker Faire. Oh, they're all around the country. There's one happening in Detroit at the end of July weekend. Real people putting science into action during the fair, nothing more exciting or inspiring. Yeah, we have been to Maker Faire, and that's a really interesting place to visit, one of the Maker Faires.

BELLOWS: That's very cool.

FLATOW: Going on around the country. Of course there are people who are saying no trips, I'm staying in to finish my dissertation.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BELLOWS: I saw that. I thought that was great. And you know what? Hello, there's some real truth to that, no trips. You don't necessarily have to travel to experience science. I mean, one of the really things - the things that I treasure about my kids is I can get them in the backyard.

I watch them as their nose gets closer and closer and closer to the ground, and boom, they've found a bug. They've found something that excites them. They've found something that we can talk about. They've found something that we can actually go to the Internet and figure out what is this red bug with the black thing on its head.

FLATOW: The same is true of the birdfeeder.

BELLOWS: Oh, absolutely, the birdfeeder for sure. In fact, right now we have a nest on our front porch, and all we see are those little tiny, you know, beaks opened up, and of course the parents are cruising around the house absolutely outraged that we should get so close to their children.

FLATOW: I'll bet. Let's go to Jerry(ph) in Columbus. Hi, Jerry.

JERRY: Good afternoon, Ira. I like to listen to you every Friday, great program. And this is most interesting because if I was able to, I would go back where my son and I went backpacking, '74, '75 and '76, Isle Royale National Park. I hope you know where I'm talking geographically.

FLATOW: Lake Superior.

JERRY: ...about 15 miles off Thunder Bay, Ontario, belongs - actually part of Keweenaw County, Michigan, but it's been a national park for 71 years, and fantastic, pristine area, got a lot of wolves. I don't know how many there are today. When we were there, there were 43 wolves estimated and about 1,300 moose.

We saw plenty of moose but not a lot of wolves, great fishing, 36 inland lakes on this island.

FLATOW: Do you work for the chamber of commerce on this one? It sounds great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JERRY: No, sir, I just find it's the only place in the Midwest, Ira, where you can go backpacking, and the crowds aren't there. I mean, I don't know what their annual visitation is, but the interesting thing is that now there was an article in the Sunday paper last week from - about the warming up there. They even are encountering deer ticks on Isle Royale, which normally don't thrive where the winter temperature doesn't average 19 degrees or above.

And the Lake Superior water temperature is rising, just an interesting place. I wish you'd do a whole program on it, Ira, because all kinds of - there's even on Raspberry Island, a small island off Isle Royale, there is a Venus flytrap plant I just observed yesterday when I was reviewing some of my color slides - remember those, Ira?

FLATOW: Jerry, I only have an hour, so I...

JERRY: Okay. I appreciate the time, Ira, and you have a wonderful day.

FLATOW: Thanks a lot, have a good vacation out there. We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more with Keith Bellows. Maybe you have your own vacation spot - scientific, nature - whatever you'd like to suggest. Our number 800-989-8255. Also tweet us @scifri, and you can go to our Facebook page, /scifri. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC [end soundbite] Going on around the country. Of course,)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BELLOWS: I saw that. I thought that was great. And you know what? Hello, there's some real truth to that, no trips. You don't necessarily have to travel to experience science. I mean, one of the really - things - the things that I treasure about my kids is I can get them in the backyard.

I watch them as their nose gets closer and closer and closer to the ground and, boom, they found a bug. They found something that excites them. They found something that we can talk about. They found something that we can actually go to the Internet and figure out what is this red bug with the black thing on its head.

FLATOW: The same is true of the birdfeeder.

BELLOWS: Oh absolutely, the birdfeeder for sure. In fact, right now we have a nest on our front porch, and all we see are those little tiny, you know, beaks opened up, and of course the parents are cruising around the house absolutely outraged that we should get so close to their children.

FLATOW: I'll bet. Let's go to Jerry(ph) in Columbus. Hi, Jerry.

JERRY: Good afternoon, Ira. I like to listen to you every Friday, great program. And this is most interesting because if I was able to, I would go back where my son and I went backpacking '74, '75 and '76, at Isle Royale National Park. I hope you know where I'm talking geographically.

FLATOW: Lake Superior.

JERRY: (Unintelligible) 15 miles off Thunder Bay, Ontario, belongs actually part of Keweenaw County, Michigan, but it's been a national park for 71 years and fantastic, pristine area, got a lot of wolves. I don't know how many there are today. When we were there, there were 43 wolves estimated and about 1,300 moose.

We saw plenty of moose but not a lot of wolves. Great fishing, 36 inland lakes on this island.

FLATOW: Do you work for the chamber of commerce on this one? It sounds great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JERRY: No, sir, I just find it's the only place in the Midwest, Ira, where you can go backpacking and the crowds aren't there. I mean, I don't know what their annual visitation is but the interesting thing is that now, there was an article in the Sunday paper last week from - about the warming up there. They even are encountering deer ticks on Isle Royale, which normally don't thrive where the winter temperature doesn't average 19 degrees or above.

And the Lake Superior water temperature is rising, just an interesting place. I wish you'd do a whole program on it, Ira, because all kinds of - there's even on Raspberry Island, a small island off Isle Royale, there is a Venus flytrap plant I just observed yesterday when I was reviewing some of my color slides - remember those, Ira?

FLATOW: Jerry, I only have an hour, so I'm going to have to...

JERRY: Okay. I appreciate the time, Ira, and you have a wonderful day.

FLATOW: Thanks a lot, have a good vacation out there. We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more with Keith Bellows. Maybe you have your own vacation spot, science, nature, whatever, you'd like to suggest. Our number 800-989-8255. Also tweet us @scifri, and you can go to our Facebook page, /scifri. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're trying to find some really interesting, out-of-the-way places that you can go to, maybe drive or take a train, nearby places, scientifically oriented. Tweets are coming in.

VLA: I've been to the VLA - that's I guess the Very Large Array. I very highly recommend it. It is so awesome. Is that on your list, Keith?

BELLOWS: It would be. I'd love to see the great array. I mean, the fascination of looking at the sky all the time. Of course, I'm not sure how interesting it is watching that watching the sky.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: It's like watching paint dry.

BELLOWS: Yeah, exactly, a little bit, but pretty cool.

FLATOW: Pretty cool. What else would be on your list? What's...

BELLOWS: Oh, I have so many places on my list. And of course, I'm supposed to stay - do I have to stay in the United States? Because one of the places that I think is sort of the engine of the world is Antarctica. And if I could go anywhere, that would be where it is.

I mean, you're seeing weather change. You're watching the dynamics of the world right there, and it's right in front of your eyes. I talked to somebody yesterday who told me that driving into - and of course you're driving in in a sailboat, into these incredible ice fields is like the top five percent of the Alps.

And if you imagine everything is water up to the top five percent of the Alps, and you're just driving into the top peaks, and there you see truly something that no one else gets to see.

FLATOW: I was there 32 years ago.

BELLOWS: Oh my goodness.

FLATOW: And it changed my life forever just because of the absolute beauty of it.

BELLOWS: This guy was completely transformed.

FLATOW: You are, and you never look at the world the same way again. To see a 14,000-foot peak of a mountain and only a little, tiny bit of it sticking out at the top.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BELLOWS: Right, exactly.

FLATOW: And I fell off a glacier, but that's another story, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Katie(ph) in Denver. Hi, Katie.

KATIE: Hi, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

KATIE: Well, I just wanted to recommend that if you're in Colorado or in the West that you could take a mine tour because there's actually a lot of, like, cool, geological things to see and kids really enjoy it because they can, like, go gold panning and things like that. So...

FLATOW: Find a mine, take a tour, hopefully one that's not working at the moment, right?

KATIE: I'm sorry? Yeah, the Phoenix Gold Mine is one in Idaho Springs.

FLATOW: Yeah, all right.

KATIE: It's only about an hour outside of Denver, so...

Thanks for that suggestion, Katie. Of course, if you go to Alaska, you can go to those panning-for-gold tourist thingies also, couldn't you, Keith?

BELLOWS: You can, but let's stay away from the touristy stuff, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Right. Have you been into these mines, and would you suggest those places?

BELLOWS: I haven't, but - well, I've been into the mining areas, but I haven't been into the mines because it's like going - you know, it's going back down into those, you know, cave diving. And I'm just not going to go there.

FLATOW: Yeah, I understand, it's claustrophobic. You know, one of the things as a parent, I knew that - I didn't want my trip - taking kids along, and it's sort of wasted on them, right? They don't know how to appreciate what they're seeing. Is there any way you can prep your kid, you know, for that trip? Or is it smart just to let them discover on their own?

BELLOWS: Well, I think there's three things. First of all, there is an illusion that the kids are too young. Kids have muscle memory. I started traveling when I was about three. I was born in Africa. And I think that once you get that feeling of traveling, the rhythm of it, the idea that something is foreign or different, that's a very important thing to inculcate in a child.

So the idea that they're too young is really more a convenience for the parent to say, ah, you know, it's a hassle to bring my five-year-old along.

The second thing is, yes, you can prep. And the thing is to try to come up, do the research so that you have three or four stories and four or five questions. So the stories are to get people - get kids excited about the place they're going. The questions are to get them to start to think about asking questions.

And then the third thing is to be willing to let them go where they want to go and not try to control the experience.

FLATOW: Good suggestions, 1-800-989-8255, Mike(ph) in Morris Plains, New Jersey. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MIKE: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

MIKE: My suggestion is - or a comment, (unintelligible) we go to the beach, and we fly kites with my kids. You can play around with the bridle of the kite. You can learn a little bit about aerodynamics. You can look at the clouds. And then if you're really - if you're living in our area, the New York metro area, and really want to tie it into science, go to Liberty State Park, where there's a constant wind blowing, and there's the Liberty Science Center, a really great science museum right there.

You can, you know, use the open field where people do go to fly kites because of the constant wind and then duck into the museum for a little bit of school and other science stuff.

FLATOW: Do you ever take your kids searching for the tidal pools around the jetties and things like that?

MIKE: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I've probably spent more time trying to keep the kids from falling into the tidal pool.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MIKE: You know, New Jersey has jetties. They're really fun to walk on, and you can look at a lot of crabs and barnacles and things like that. But I guess I'm more of an engineer, technie kind of guy and less of a biology kind of guy. So that was more to - you know, do a little rock scrambling.

FLATOW: Good suggestions, Mike. Stay cool. Have a good weekend.

MIKE: Thanks.

FLATOW: Yeah, there is a lot to do at the beach, Keith, isn't there?

BELLOWS: Well, there is. And what I loved about what he said was you're talking about one of the best science museums in the country, the Liberty Science Museum, and yet he probably - his child probably got as much out of what happens outside the museum as what happens inside the museum.

And this idea of being able to allow children to see the world not as a contained sort of museum experience but as something that is just there is really important. So the aerodynamics, for instance, of a kite, fantastic.

FLATOW: You know, the latest studies show that most people learn their science in informal science education places, outside of classrooms.

BELLOWS: Exactly.

FLATOW: And this would be a museum, us, whatever. This would be the case where these things happen.

BELLOWS: Well, and we all know about attention - excuse me, nature deficit disorder. I mean, this idea...

FLATOW: Nature deficit disorder?

BELLOWS: Nature deficit disorder. This is a big deal, the idea that our children are not being, you know, introduced to nature and allowed to experience it in the way that they used to be. And that's where they get their learning because that's their natural curiosity being focused where they want to focus it.

FLATOW: And of course, you could just sit in your hammock if you had a good nature book, right, any kind of bird book? Like one of our tweets came in from WarmCharity(ph), who says: I just got the Audubon Society bird app, oh for your phone. And I have catalogued my entire backyard's aviary.

BELLOWS: Very cool.

FLATOW: How cool is that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And there are also apps out now - I remember seeing one, we tried one out, that will identify the bark on trees, where, you know, you take a picture of the tree, look at the bark, and it'll tell you what tree it is.

BELLOWS: And not to do a plug for NatGeo, but I will do it. We have something called Noah(ph), which allows you to see something, post it and get somebody to tell you what it is.

FLATOW: Wow. That is cool. Let's go to Neal(ph) in Grand Rapids. Hi, Neal.

NEAL: Hi, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

NEAL: Well, two recommendations, an indoor and an outdoor. The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Munising, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula. And the Ford Rouge(ph) tour in Detroit.

FLATOW: Oh, the car plant.

NEAL: Yeah. They've got a bio roof on there, and you get to see the production line, and if you go during working hours, you get to see people working.

FLATOW: That's great to see people working.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEAL: Especially if you're on vacation.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: All right, good suggestions. Have a great summer.

NEAL: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. Any last suggestions, Keith?

BELLOWS: Oh, gosh.

FLATOW: I know you got a whole list of them.

BELLOWS: Yeah.

FLATOW: It's hard - it's like parents, you know, who are your favorite kids, what are your favorite places.

BELLOWS: Well, you know, one of the great places, I mean, it's sort of maligned a little bit, and I remember in 1968, when they turned it off. It was Niagara Falls. And I actually had a chance to walk across Niagara Falls.

FLATOW: I thought I saw you there. I was there also.

BELLOWS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, there we are.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BELLOWS: But what's so great about that is if you look at that, that phenomenon right between America and Canada and just - it probably - I think, and I don't have the exact science here, but I think it has more water goes over that per second than any other falls, including Iguazu and Victoria Falls.

But the power of that and the power to get a kid excited or even an adult excited is amazing, and it's right there, right next to Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

FLATOW: And it's interesting how far the falls have traveled backwards. The whole length of that gorge, it gets eaten away and moves backwards, right?

BELLOWS: Exactly.

FLATOW: It has hard rock on top and soft on the bottom, and when it comes down there, it eats up the bottom, and that's why they dried it up in '68, to try to figure out if they should do something about it.

BELLOWS: And they found all that trash.

FLATOW: Yeah, exactly. Actually, NPR 1972, we tried to throw a barrel over Niagara Falls, and it didn't - they drained so much water out of it during the winter because the tourists are not there, to make electricity, that they had these pools on the side that...

BELLOWS: Wasn't that amazing, though, when they turned it off? I mean, that was something.

FLATOW: It was. It - if you want to know what we're talking about, you can Google Niagara Falls and see it dried up and people walking on it. And it was scary, but it was a lot of fun. And you were a lot of fun. Keith, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

BELLOWS: My pleasure, Ira. Have a great weekend.

FLATOW: You, too. Stay cool. Keith Bellows is editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, author of the forthcoming book "100 Places That Will Change Your Child's Life." pleasure, Ira. Have a great weekend.

C: 100 Places that will Change your Child's Life.

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