Without a doubt, Boston is an incredible place to catch a World Series game or an Original Six NHL matchup. But the Hub, as locals call it, isn’t just for sports fans.
The city is also an ideal holiday spot for left-brain cerebrals. For centuries, Bostonians have been busy measuring time, mapping the solar system and researching reflexes. Technicolor, PET scans, video games, e-mail and even Facebook all owe something to this place.
Here are 10 geeky sights to appeal to the nerd in all of us.
The Putnam Gallery in Harvard’s Science Center houses the fascinating Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. Each display of scientific apparatus and instruments offers a glimpse of the ingenuity and technology behind innovations from physics to psychology. Check out the beautifully crafted 18th-century brass-and-wood instruments used to study the solar system, and locally made precision clocks that measure minutes so precisely that, according to museum director Jean-François Gauvin, Boston “time” was sought after by railways and ports. 1 Oxford St., Cambridge; 617-495-2779
The year-old Massachusetts General Hospital’s Russell Museum of Medical History and Innovation celebrates Boston’s medical trailblazing. The copper-clad building, with slate stairs and glass walls, is breathtaking. Exhibits include a model of a Boston-invented artificial hip and a showcase of work by Canadian-American Jack Szostak, a Mass General doctor who studies the origin of life at the molecular level and who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The highlight is the adjacent Ether Dome, a 19th-century operating amphitheatre where ether (a popular party drug of the day) was first used in a public surgery. 2 North Grove St.; massgeneral.org/museum
While there is an active chapter of Geeks Who Drink (a popular pub trivia night; geekswhodrink.com), an alternative evening activity is a stop at the Coit Observatory to spot some globula clusters. Of course, you can come for the views any time of day. Not everyone wants an astronomy lesson, observatory curator Quinn Sykes says. “A few have come just to look at the moon, and there was one marriage proposal.” 725 Commonwealth Ave.; 617-353-2630
At the MIT Museum, the Robots and Beyond gallery is dedicated to artificial intelligence– fitting, since Boston’s robot R&D is world-renowned. Visitors can meet several retired robots, including the swimming RoboTuna; the social Kismet, with a strangely precise humanoid facial expression; Slinky-playing Cog; and insect-like Attila, after which the Mars Rover Sojourner was patterned. 265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; web.mit.edu/museum
The ultramodern Broad Institute is a hub of genome sequencing, chemical biology and genetic analysis with a humble goal of understanding life at a molecular level (well, that’s the lay version). The first-floor lobby, the DNAtrium, has interactive videos of researchers who chat with visitors about genotypes and single nucleotides. Most fun is the display of machines that do the work of genomic research. One that looks like a beer fridge scans gene chips,while another with levers similar to those of a fast-food soda dispenser washes them. 7 Cambridge Center, Cambridge; broadinstitute.org
On the waterfront, District Hall is touted as “the world’s first freestanding public innovation centre.” Conceived as a social hub for the innovation economy’s talent, the hall hosts day and night demonstrations of new technologies and start-up showcases (schedules on the website). District Hall’s restaurant, the Gather, overlooks the harbour and is open 20 hours a day to fuel all-night brainstorming sessions with modern-American fare such as quahog stew and lobster ravioli. 75 Northern Ave., districthallboston.org.
The Digital Den, an archive of hardware and software from the personal computing era, is a must-see for devoted digital lovers. Soon to be a museum, the Den pays homage to vintage computing with a comprehensive collection of PC and Mac personal computers, including their operating systems and software. You’ll find most versions of Logo, the groundbreaking computer language for kids, as well as extensive examples of hypertext and game software. 134 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617- 547-8180, visit by appointment; digital-den.org.
Robots don’t eat, but the people who make them do, so you’ll find myriad places to refuel and strike up awkward conversations that just might lead to a multimillion dollar start-up. One place where Samba isn’t a dance and Java isn’t coffee is Miracle of Science, walking distance from MIT. The blackboard menu is laid out like the periodic table (Hb is hamburger, Cb is cheeseburger). Photos of Einstein and Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land adorn the walls. 321 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, miracleofscience.us
The official Nerd Nite is the last Monday of each month at Middlesex Lounge. With the catchy marketing phrase, “Be there and be square,” Nerd Nite attracts a host of scientists, engineers and math types to think and drink. Talks cover topics from cephalod intelligence to comics. It’s “a good place to bring a date,” organizer Tim Sullivan says. Brainy lounge lizards might like to dress to the 9.99999s because on other nights Middlesex is a sexy space with excellent deejays. 315 Massachusetts Ave., Cambrdige; boston.nerdnite.com
Bimonthly Geek Comedy Nights (geekweekcomedy.com) have algorithm crunchers, physicists and programmers rolling in the aisles at jokes about infinity, robotics and punctuation. “In a city like this, where things are always being discovered, topics like these are hilarious,” says event organizer Kevin Harrington, who works in a stem-cell and regenerative biology lab. ImprovBoston (improvboston.com) serves the same demographic with parodies of cult games such as Dorks and Dungeons and Magic: The Gathering.
At the Compleat Strategist, self-described nerds such as Christian Daly – whose day-job is researching high-throughput DNA sequencing at Harvard – blows off steam playing board games such as Agricola (a supposedly fun time that involves “worker placement” and “resource management”). The cramped clubhouse is always busy, manager Mike Horne says. “You have some of the smartest people in America in Boston. It’s that simple.” And don’t forget: MIT birthed one of the first video games, Spacewar, back in 1961. 957 Commonwealth Ave., thecompleatstrategist.com
IF YOU GO
To keep with the brainy theme, stay at the Eliot Hotel. It was originally built as housing for Harvard professors by the family of Charles Eliot, the university’s president from 1869 to 1909. The luxe hotel also has one of Boston’s most well-known restaurants, Clio, which is famous for – what else? – molecular gastronomy. Located by the Harvard Alumni Club, it’s walking distance from all Boston sights. Rates start at $300 (U.S.). 370 Commonwealth Ave., 617-267-1607, eliothotel.com.