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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. 

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