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Science Festivals: A Place of Science

First, I want to show you a picture of Holyrood Park. It is one of my favourite places to visit here in Edinburgh and somewhere that I like to go any time of day. Early morning, late at night, it provides the most exquisite break from reality and the town. Despite being situated in the heart of the city, it manages to feel completely wild and every time I go there, it’s as if I am transported. 

Holyrood from Queen’s Road, Pleasance side

Holyrood Park exists all on its own as something spectacular and a place to be explored and seen and commemorated. Whether that’s for its geologic features, the flora, or the unexpected encounters with native wildlife; the adventure you have there is up to you the explorer.

Still, I think the most exciting thing about Holyrood Park is that in an instant, it can be completely transformed by the presence of certain people and things. I wondered if this was just me but when I was recently reading an article by a sociologist named Thomas Gieryn he gave a name to that sensation. When Gieryn described a phenomenon that he dubbed truth spots, I at once associated this idea with Holyrood Park. These truth spots were exemplified by “places of science” that were to me almost like a kind of holy meeting point: science is made there and something about that place gives the scientist authority. Every time he described a place of science, I thought back to Holyrood Park, and how it could be a place of science. There was certainly science taking place there! The geology of the rocks, the biology of the animals, the horticulture of the flowers and the grass. Still, I thought there might be something more… 

You see every year in Edinburgh, when there is not a pandemic happening, there is usually a science festival that takes place and one of the venues is Holyrood Park. In those times when the Edinburgh Science Festival is there, scientists give people the opportunity to engage with the park in a new way. Some of it is very childish and basic with face painting, and some of it is more complex with a portable natural science lab. It transforms what the park means in those moments for people that visit. No longer is it an escape from the city, or a world on display, it is a place to create science with scientists. In a way maybe it makes us scientists ourselves for a moment in time! The exploration of concepts that relate to this beautiful place we see every day, that we usually just walk through and hike about for fun and enjoyment, it becomes something altogether new and different. 

As I walked through Holyrood and thought about Gieryn’s truth spots, I thought that surely the science festival is in its way a place of science. Maybe one different than what Gieryn describes…all of his truth spots were places that did not move or change so much, but a science festival is there and then not there. Holyrood by itself is a truth spot, and a place where science exists but it is not made fully a place of science until the science festival brings it to life and invites us in to be scientists there and experiment with what we see and know. 

The science festival then is what I have decided to call: a place liminal. If you’ve never heard of liminal spaces they are an in-between, I love this definition from wikipedia

the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. 

To me that’s what the science festival is, when it takes over a place like Holyrood Park, it transforms it, and when it is no longer there, that place is somehow not the same. 

If you have a science festival, or a cultural festival in your town, think about the places that the festival usually occupies or the venues that the festival uses: how are they transformed by the festival? Do you know somewhere in your city that becomes wholly different when a festival takes place? A bar can become a lecture hall, a church can become a theatre, a street is a stage! Do you have your own truth spots or places of science that you know about that fit Gieryn’s definitions? Can you describe your own “place liminal” that exists solely because of the event that makes it so each year? Or better yet have you discovered a place of science all your own?

I know the next time I go to Holyrood Park it will still be special and provide a distraction and give me perspective over the city; but I know too that when the science festival visits again, the liminal place of science will open and a new version of the park will exist only for that time which is completely different that will make me glad I visited to participate. 

Closing Loose Ends

One of the last things I meant to do with my degree was to post the executive summary of my graduate research. This is by no means the final look at what I’ve done but a quick overview that distills the findings into a one-pager.

If you have questions please feel free to reach out, if you need to know more, I’m always here. For now:

Executive Summary Thesis

And for those interested, references, bibliography and appendices.


Now, Voyager

I have a backlog of things to write about like the 9 days I spent in Paris, the dark and winding road of ethics forms and engagement, but right now all I want to talk about is London.

I arrived last week to do some work with the BSA and while there’s something tremendously jaw dropping about giving a talk in a room that has a Royal Charter on the wall and books that have some 150 years worth of historical record (original, by the way) just chilling there I keep coming back to the strange and airy in between bits.

You would think that having to take transit every day I go into the office back in the US would make me tire really quickly of it, but actually it turns out to be quite the opposite. Every time I’m in a country with mass transit I get excited about taking the metro. Scotland, Ireland, France, Britain… I grab my card and top up the cash and learn all the maps. What are the line terminus names? Are these eastbound or westbound? North or South? Which lines overlap? Do some of these stop running late at night? Tap on, tap off.

There’s something oddly calming about sitting on the tube in the middle of the day, buried under layers of music and staring at the metro map above the doors, watching the clever signs blur by through each station. The even measured voice over the speaker announcing each stop in turn, still audible over my headphones, telling me which doors will open, mind the gap.

Each station has it’s own personality with the people who load and unload there. Are they young? old? high fashion? daily business persons? hipsters? Where are they going next… bags with groceries, bags with shopping. Locals? Tourists? The strange three man klezmer-esque band playing Despacito and wandering the length  train as everyone stood aside and smiled for them.

It’s an unparalleled experience, the metro. It’s the veins of the city and you become the heartbeat when you dive down into it. There’s all sorts of parables or what have you about “it’s not about the destination it’s about the journey” but I think as travelers we only take that to heart when we’re getting to the place we want to go from our home. But getting around the place is part of the adventure, part of the experience, part of the journey. Are you walking? Taking the tube? Hailing a cab? Driving yourself? It’s important – it shapes your experience of a place.

Paris would be a completely different experience from the back of a cab – one that I don’t know if I could abide… but when I was spilling in and out of art nouveau styled metro stations and walking the dusty side lanes of the Champs Elysees that even the tourists had abandoned, it created an image of the city that is irrevocably different and more intense.

In London the utilitarian aspects of the tube are almost calming and reassuring as each new stop seems to be an overwhelming mess of sensory overload. Scents, colors, the crush of people in a hurry to get to their next destination. And then there’s me with my headphones on and ambling in a daze with no exact point in mind.

It’s how I ended up on the Jubilee Walkway on Sunday. I had tried a bit of a walk about in Shoreditch but given up when the city was overrun by hipsters that didn’t seem to be doing much of anything except judging each other’s outfits and hairstyles. I wasn’t dressed for that so I popped down to the underground again and emerged at Tower Hill. I thought I should at least have a look at the bridge and castle bits to say I’d done it, hop on, hop off – head off to Westminster maybe.

What I found instead was the Jubilee Walk which takes you over the bridge and all along the south bank. What was supposed to be a short look turned into an hours long jaunt through history.

I thought my favorite parts would be the Globe theatre, the Tower Hill castle and the London Bridge. I had no expectations really of what these places might look like I just assumed this would be what I wanted to see. But it turns out that my favorite spots were the Millennium Bridge, the Tower Bridge, and the Southwark Cathedral.

Lets skip a bit though, I could dally on over the historical Tower Bridge but the Southwark Cathedral stole Sunday out from underneath me completely. I was on my way around the bend to see some of the other sights and noticed a sign for this cathedral that said “come see our stained glass” — and I thought to myself, well I rather like stained glass …. can’t hurt just to pass through.

But then I walked in and they were just starting their Choral Evensong. I was told by an usher that there were no photos during the service, but I was welcome to join. Not really thinking about the time or commitment involved here I sat down in one of the back rows and listened to the choir. I’m not much for church anyways, not religious, and I can’t really remember the last time I willingly went to a service. I think I honestly thought if I walked into a chapel I might spontaneously burst into flames because of being some kind of heretic but I was willing to risk it. As long as I didn’t partake of the transubstantiated body of Christ I figured I might be in the clear.

I was just here to observe and wait to take pictures. I didn’t expect to be wrapped so fully in the experience that I sat through the whole service, listened with a tilted head to each gospel message and shed a tear when the organ struck up at various points.

In the end I barely took any pictures because there isn’t a picture you can take that accurately describes the experience. How do you put into words what it means to sit in a cathedral that’s on a 1,000 year old place of Christian worship? How do you marshall together a single thought about sitting there and staring down the long aisle towards the altar and noticing that half the stained glass windows on one side are blown out and it occurs to you that that side of the church faced the south part of the city – the part that got bombed out in WWII?

And here you are, year of our lord 2018 listening to a message about false gods and immature leadership and idolatry just wondering … does anyone else remember?

It’s hard to be a historian and hold the memory in your heart every day of what wars did to this world – knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt the evil that ran deep in the veins of the cities that we traverse now with our faces tipped towards the future. For decades we had reminders in the form of veterans but we’re coming to a period of time where we have … so few WWII vets still alive that who is left to stand witness? The children of the war vets have their own memories but they don’t remember the Nazis, they don’t remember the bombing of London, they don’t remember the continent going dark and as planes flew low and looked for targets.

There’s shrapnel damage still in the outer walls of the church… Southwark Cathedral stood through both London fires, and through WWII – it survived. It survived so much to still be there, to still be celebrated and explored and experienced. This magnificent structure, this testament to faith, but more than that a community center that sheltered, provided salvation, it sustained.

As I sat there listening to the organ trail chords up and down, to the gentle voices of the choir soar into the Gothic rafters, I wondered what we leave behind? The bombs of today aren’t what we had in WWII… what would survive a world war now? Would we just skip the missiles and move straight to nuclear disaster? It seems bleak maybe… to contemplate the end of times, to think of war and waste and death in so beautiful a place, but where else do you think about it. The great wars of the past were never fought on American soil they were waged here, we fought right here, and the proof of that, the scars are still there. What we lack in living veterans we have in pockmarked landscapes, ruins that stand as a testament to destruction.

If there was one thing I wanted to take away from it all, it was this: I wish everyone back home understood the magnitude of war. I wish they knew what it meant first hand. Not the version that we glorify, not the canned press-friendly part. I wish they saw shrapnel in a church wall, blown out windows of a sanctuary, heard children singing in a choir and thought it was all worth never fighting over again.

Lest we forget.


Of War and Sanctuary

When I was a kid one of my favorite things to do was play dress up. In fact one of my earliest memories is that I had a dinosaur costume as a kid for Halloween and then I spent several months wearing it around the house, the yard, the grocery store, terrorising people in my dinosaur alter-ego until I fully outgrew the suit. It was formative I suppose, but afterwards and forever since I have loved being in costume.

Halloween was at first the only socially acceptable time for this creative outlet but soon enough my mom and great aunt and grandmother would all let me and my cousins raid their closets and parade around the yards and house in cast offs or costumes. Like dandy southern ladies, we would carouse on sweet tea in our big hats, long gauzy skirts, umbrellas cast as parasols and high heels that slid around our too-small feet. Sometimes we would dress up just to admire the clothing and have a go at our own version of high fashion, and other times we would make up elaborate stories to go along with our outfits. We were traveling heiresses on our way to Atlanta, or maybe highly ranked foreign royals at some exquisite event.

It was a nice release of energy and creativity all in one go but at some point someone says well you’re too old for that.

To hell with them, I say.

In college I fell into the wide world of themed parties and cosplay which were worlds apart and yet practically neighbors. There was something taboo and forbidden about being on the supposed cusp of adulthood and yet getting dressed up like a character and going to a party when you didn’t have so much as a holiday to hide behind. Oh sure, Halloween was still a big deal but my friends were throwing Hollywood themed birthday parties, and masked ‘balls’ for New Years Eve and who was I to turn down the opportunity to revisit something I had so loved as a kid. I remember an elaborate peacock look I put together that involved painting the ‘mask’ onto my face with glitter.

And then one day, a friend told me about the wide and wonderful world of cosplay. It was like someone had turned on all the lights and taken costuming to an 11.

If I thought my casual summer looks pulled out of Aunt Mary’s closet were really something special, they had nothing on the girls at conventions who were sewing whole ball gowns out of silk and taffeta and stuffing them with crinolines and tulle. I knew I wasn’t going to be an expert over night and my ambition was pretty limited at the start but I still remember my grandma, Nina, getting so excited to teach me how to knit so I could cobble together my own Harry Potter scarves. Or how pleased she was when she got to show me how to use a sewing machine and a pattern so I could make my first pleated skirt for a Hogwarts uniform.

They weren’t impressive pieces, but they’re sentimental to me now, and exciting even after all this time. That I made them myself. That seems to be part of the appeal of cosplay after all these years that I’ve made it myself. Even if all the pieces aren’t made by me – the full look put together with hair, makeup, clothes… that’s all pulled together by me. Sourcing sometimes is just as difficult as making it myself, honestly and there’s a thrill in it all the same.

Since those humble beginnings, I’ve tackled much more daring projects, with armor, and corsets and having to outsource making bits to other craftsman… but at the heart of all this toil is still that same joy I had as a 4 year old dressed as a T Rex. We could do a deep dive sometime on the culture, implications, cost, social project etc of cosplay and all that but for me it’s in the feeling of playing dress up.  That as an adult I can put on a costume and for a minute be someone else. That I can transform through make up and wigs and fabric and a little bit of acting. I wish Aunt Mary and Nina could see it now – to see how all the creative encouragement from when I was a kid panned out. How that first awkward sewing project has turned into a mountain of totes filled with patterns and fabrics and to-dos.

These days I’ll travel to a couple of cons a year, and many of my cosplays serve double time at costume parties or even #scicomm events and Halloween, but it’s still a thrill to pull them out and transform and to draft a new costume for the next year, or the next season.

It’s an exciting thing to slip on a mask and move amongst the crowd as anyone but you. At any given convention I could play half a dozen roles and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Playing Dress Up