Stars: The Theory of Relativity and science as culture

The Theory of Relativity, the opening track and first single from Stars latest, The North, features many things that the band is known for: dreamy lyrics, the seamless back and forth between vocalists Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell, and a rising and falling soundscape feel. My husband commented when we put the album on for the first time that you would know it was a Stars song immediately, even if you’d never heard it before. And that is in no way a bad thing. It takes the band forward with a much more synth-heavy approach and rhythm that’s more electronica than indie rock, and does it in a way that doesn’t lose any of the charm of being a Stars recording. (See for reference a past favourite of mine: Take me to the Riot.)

It’s also got at least one surprise: a physics reference. Okay, it’s a passing one that really only gets highlighted because it’s the title of the song. It was enough, though, to make Spin magazine use Einstein as the hook for their review, which opens with “Now, you know damn well we’re not rocket scientists, but as we understand it, the one constant in Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity is the speed of light. That’s an appropriately grand concept to hold in mind as you approach ‘The Theory of Relativity.'” The catch is, a reader or listener needs to know at least a little bit about Einstein and relativity to fully get both the song and the review.

The term scientific literacy is used so widely when talking about scientific understanding that it’s often hard to even pin down what people mean. Sometimes it means making sure that everyone understands at least the most basic scientific principles (though what those are is hard to define). Sometimes it’s a shorthand for complaining about misunderstandings and miscommunications between scientists and non-scientists. And sometimes, in my world in particular, it’s the term used for helping students understand not the content of science but its context, for example, the skills, history and language of science.* However it’s defined, the reasons for caring about it are usually approximately the same. It is often argued that people need to be more scientifically literate so they understand science and scientists and use that understanding to make better decisions, for example, to be more politically supportive of science or to navigate complex scientific issues in their own lives.

What the song made me remember, though, is that there’s another reason. Scientific literacy is cultural literacy. Reading great books or watching great films opens up the world of references and allusions between them (the intertextuality if you will).  Hearing Scott Baio say of Henry Winkler on Arrested Development, “This isn’t the first time I’ve been brought on to replace [him]” is only funny for those who remember that Baio was brought in as the cool young kid replacing Winkler’s Fonz on Happy Days. Cultural literacy is a way to talk about those essential and deeply rooted references and connections that can leave people feeling entirely left out or only skimming the surface without them. Like scientific literacy, it is by no means unproblematic (defining “essential” is of course completely cultural itself) but it can sometimes be a useful way of thinking about things.**

What often gets left out of the reasons for scientific literacy is that science is a part of that culture. It offers a beautiful and complex world of its own metaphors and references – for scientists, artists and audiences – and this is something that everyone has a right to learn. Calling this song The Theory of Relativity brings with it not only images of Einstein’s hair but of a past that is almost mythical for physicists and physics lovers: the incredible boom in complex understanding of the world at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s Max Plank (who actually first used the term) and the birth quantum physics. It’s Einstein and Bohr sitting around and debating the nature of reality and science. It’s the realists versus the instrumentalists at the 1926 Solvay Conference in Leiden, which preceded Schrödinger’s correspondence with Einstein in which he proposed his famous cat. It was a golden age of physics that is easily romanticized.

Funny enough, gazing misty-eyed into the past is exactly what The Theory of Relativity is about. Nicely played, Stars.

“The North”, Stars sixth full-length album, was released September 4, 2012 on their own label Soft Revolution Records.

*Alice Bell has done an excellent job on many occasions of examining the many problems with the term. For example, see her post The Myth of Scientific Literacy.
**Bernard Schweizer’s 2009 essay Cultural literacy: Is it time to revisit the debate gives an interesting overview and perspective.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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