If a Tree Falls in a Forest…

A little while back, the kids and I made a trip to Edinburgh to enjoy the Edinburgh International Science Festival exhibition. The organisers describe the festival as “an educational charity that encourages people of all ages and backgrounds to discover the wonder of the world around them”. The educational projects that take place year-round look interesting. I particularly liked the attention paid to the theme of sound which is covered by two travelling shows for schools, one aimed at very young and the other at slightly less young junior school children.

Using the theme of sound has the potential to provide for wide-ranging discussions of science: acoustics, electronics, anatomy, physiology, psychology and ethology. It also has the potential to relate them to wider interests still: music, obviously, and from there fashion, performance and human social interaction in general. The descriptions of these events make frequent use of the words “inspiring”, “educational” and “entertaining”, so on the face of it, they would appear to do a grand job of encouraging the idea that the artificial subject divisions in education and elsewhere are just that … artificial. I’m curious to know how far the organisers realise the potential of their theme.

Nothing More

This photo, which I took at the exhibition and just rediscovered on my phone makes me wonder, however. Admittedly, the placard seems to have been put there by one of the festival’s corporate sponsors, but the slogan cuts short my enthusiasm expressed above. While the slogan does neatly encapsulate a scientific (specifically, acoustic) account of sound, those words “nothing more than” imply that everything worth saying on the subject has now been said. The placard speaks with a presumed authority to imply that there is but one worthwhile way of understanding sound. Other ways are consigned to the “nothing” in the excluded “more than”. Are we to understand that they are mere amusements?

There’s a certain irony in that the festival aims to popularise science by presenting in as entertainment (which is, of course, what popularisers of science have always done) yet at the same time presents us with a slogan as confining as this. Then again, perhaps its purpose is to provoke us into thinking against its own limits. Would it be too much to think that the organisers of the Edinburgh International Science Festival might themselves be subtle purveyors of irony?

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