Once upon a time, math geeks and computer nerds were considered totally uncool, what with their slide rules, pocket protectors and astonishing ability to get bonked in the nose with a fly ball to right field.
Then time passed. A lot of stuff happened. Now those guys pretty much rule the world. Their kingdom is Silicon Valley, the coin of the realm is the latest app and the number of Teslas per block averages 25. (Number of 2007 Honda Civics with faded roof paint: 1, at least when I’m in town.)
Here are eight real-life sites — some famed, some obscure — for geek groupies who want to see where big brains have banged out the next big thing. It’s too bad those brains haven’t yet come out with “Star Trek” transporters (Elon Musk probably has one but won’t share. Darn you, Musk!). So you’ll have to take some sort of vehicular conveyance to the Peninsula — a self-driving electric car that brews lattes and irons your shirts along the way would be best, but do what you can.
Every good geek knows you need to start the day with a hearty breakfast. And the best place for tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to do that is, for some reason, Buck’s. It’s a fun diner in the little village of Woodside with decidedly analog and delicious pancakes and wacky decor — biplanes, blimps, stuffed beasts, a cosmonaut suit, a Statue of Liberty that sometimes wears a sombrero, sometimes a politically pink knit hat.
During the past two decades, companies like PayPal, Hotmail, Netscape and Tesla were born here, yet Buck’s longtime owner, Jamis MacNiven, admits he doesn’t know why it’s such a draw for the tech elite. “We’re just people feeders here, and we happen to have been anointed with this international reputation,” he says. “I’m just the guy who holds open the door. Oh, and we have food, too.”
Details: 3062 Woodside Road, Woodside, www.buckswoodside.com.
SLAC NATIONAL ACCELERATOR LABORATORY
Now that your brain’s been fed, take I-280 south to Sand Hill Road. You’ll pass SLAC, which is super cool, because inside the 2-mile long building is the world’s longest particle accelerator, which sends molecules speeding around like subatomic race cars. Public tours of the Stanford-run research facility are offered twice a month; advance registration required.
Details: 2575 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park, www6.slac.stanford.edu and search for “public tours.”
This is just a little garage with a green garage door, behind a two-story wood-shingled house in a pretty neighborhood near downtown Palo Alto. You can’t go into the garage. You can’t even get within an integrated-circuit’s throw of the garage, because it’s behind a gate. But you can look at it and feel the vibes of innovation. As stated in the plaque out front, it’s an official historic site: “The Birthplace of ‘Silicon Valley.’ ” It’s where, in 1938, David Packard and William Hewlett — definitely geeks — began tinkering away on an audio oscillator. People stop and take pics all the time.
Details: 367 Addison Ave., Palo Alto.
COMPUTER HISTORY MUSEUM
Since viewing the HP garage will only take about five minutes, you can devote lots of time to the Computer History Museum. Its exhibits go back 2,000 years, starting with the abacus, moving up to slide rules, then punch-card machines, room-size computers with whirling tape reels, Univacs (I thought those only existed on “The Jetsons”) and on up through robots, software advances and a “World of Warcraft” exhibit with a life-size Thrall statue.
There’s even a self-driving Google car. Sadly, you can’t drive it, and it doesn’t make lattes. The gift shop offers robot ice cube trays and “Star Trek” mugs (add hot water and it “beams” the crew to the planet’s surface).
Details: Open Wednesday-Sunday at 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd, Mountain View. General admission is $17.50; Super Geek and Total Geek packages with entry plus T-shirts and more are $30-$46; www.computerhistory.org.
(Bonus: Off-the-grid food trucks are now at the museum every Friday night from 5 to 9 p.m.)
NASA AMES RESEARCH CENTER VISITOR CENTER
The visitor center is just outside the NASA-Ames main gate in a big white marshmallow of a tent. Inside, you’ll find a mock-up of the International Space Station, an exhibit on the Kepler Mission and a moon rock from Apollo 15. (Hint: It’s the thing that looks like a rock). The visitor center is not huge but has some cool spacey stuff. And it’s free.
Details: Moffett Blvd/NASA Parkway exit off Hwy. 101, Mountain View, www.nasa.gov/ames/visitorcenter.html.
Not far from NASA, you’ll pass some Google and Yahoo buildings on your way to a bland office/industrial area in Sunnyvale. There you’ll find the WeirdStuff warehouse. This is hard-wired geek territory for those who want to rummage around old electronics and rig up their own “Star Trek” transporter (so there, Musk!). There are shelves and shelves of circuit boards, hard drives and power supplies and mountains of keyboards and mice. It’s open to the public daily.
Details: 384 W. Caribbean Drive, Sunnyvale, www.weirdstuff.com.
Inside Intel (hah, geek humor) on the company’s Santa Clara campus, you’ll find a small but very slick Jetson-ish museum with glowing blue-and-white exhibit panels, displays on Intel’s history and products, as well as exhibits about Silicon Valley semiconductor technology. And it’s free.
Details: 2200 Mission College Blvd., Santa Clara; closed Sundays, www.intel.com.
THE TECH MUSEUM OF INNOVATION
Keep going south to downtown San Jose to The Tech, where you and your geeky kids could happily occupy an entire day or more. The 132,000-square-foot building has multiple levels of interactive science and technology exhibits. You’ll find everything from virtual-reality “cyber sleuth” exhibits for learning about internet safety to exploring your own body metrics (you can check out a customized sensor kit that measures, records and displays your activity level, tension and mental focus as you go through the museum). You can even design, build and program a real robot using sensors, controllers and actuators. There’s an IMAX Dome theater to boot, featuring films like “Dream Big: Engineering Our World.”
Details: Open daily; $24 for adults with an additional fee for the IMAX theater. 201 S. Market St., www.thetech.org.