Pint of Science

We are bang in the middle of a festival of science that links Middlesbrough with cities across the world and brings science and scientists into the more homely and comfortable setting of the pub.

“Pint of Science is a non-profit organisation that brings some of the most brilliant scientists to your local pub to discuss their latest research and findings.”  The great thing from the audience point of view is that you don’t need any prior knowledge, and it is a real opportunity to meet the people who could be the future of science (and have a pint with them).

Pint of Science runs over a few days in May in cities throughout the world from Brazil to Australia to 21 locations in Britain, including Dickens Inn, Middlesbrough. Specific topics are selected and Pint of Science, Middlesbrough has opted for Planet Earth. Programmed here by Teesside University Dr Dave Errickson, this forensic archaeologist has opted for the broadest interpretation of Planet Earth including even North Yorks folklore and the mysterious Hobs.

Tonight, (Tues 16th May) in conjunction with Middlesbrough Local History Month we have Cooking Up Local Stories and Folklore with two local favourites, Middlesbrough Museum’s Phil Philo and BBC Tees Bob Fischer. Phil will be bringing Captain Cook’s natural scientists and their incredible finds under the 21st century microscope in Gotta Catch ‘Em All. Bob will be delving into the shadowy half world of the hobs and other mythical creatures that were a very real part of rural life for the people in North Yorks Moors as he goes Hobnobbing with the Hobs.

Tomorrow night (Wed 17th May) in the same Dickens Inn venue we fly off in two very different directions again.

Spacecraft: Writing in Another Dimension – poet Harry Man has collaborated with astrophysicists, neuroscientists and ecologists, creating new interdisciplinary work which is poetry Jim, but just not as we know it.

Explore how one poem began its journey here on Earth only to be blasted into space and placed in orbit around the planet Mars, and new frontiers in adventures in the English language that evolved into poems specifically designed for those with dyslexia, poetry without words, and poetry made to be read as it slowly dissolves into the ocean or melts in the open air.

Amy Carrick River Tees Officer with Tees Valley Wildlife Trust asks: How Many Bats Can You Fit in a Pint Glass? Answer, “At least 30 (but make sure you drink the beer first!)”

Amy will tell us about all the small mammals of the Tees Valley and what the Trust is doing to monitor them. Some questions she may or may not answer are: How do we know what bat is where and what they are jibbering on about? How do we know where otters like to chill out on their couches? How do we know what water voles have for their tea?

Expect plenty of visuals with all these talks and the chance to get up close and personal with ideas, myths, facts, science and the our planet earth.

Both fun and fact packed evenings are just £4 and can be booked ahead online to ensure you have a comfortable seat to listen and a space to park your pint. Doors 6:30pm. Event 7:00-9:00pm Pint of Science




Phil Philo Message in a Bottle: Communication at Sea in the Time of Captain Cook

It was an anniversary of the Bottle of Notes statue last year and like Phil Philo, Senior Curator of Middlesbrough Museums, I was asked to speak a few lines on film about the statue. The statue that stands titled in the ground outside mima was created by internationally acclaimed artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s. It captures some of the spirit of Middlesbrough’s history by evoking the voyages of Captain Cook and capturing some of the words from his ship’s logs in Teesside’s industrial lifeblood, steel.

But for all their research Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen appear to have been totally unaware that Captain Cook actually used a bottle of notes to communicate whilst at sea. And amazingly enough it worked.

Last week Phil Philo delivered a lecture on Communication at Sea in the time of Cook for Discover Middlesbrough. In this lecture Phil revealed the incredible story of the message in a bottle but first transported us back to the 18th century and the terrible difficulties of communication at sea. For his voyages of discovery Cook was going off the charts, he might as well have been going into space as he would be totally on his own, without back up and outside any means of communication. When Cook rounded the southern tip of Africa on his second voyage he sent a letter back to England by frigate, the only means for possible speedy delivery of news. It would be his last communication for two full years.

Phil told us that ship to ship communication could be just as fraught with difficulty. Simple messages and commands could be transferred by use of flags, such as Nelson’s famous message before Trafalgar. What I didn’t realise was that Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory was already the pride of the navy that Cook served in with such distinction.

Yet flags were far from foolproof as there were several different languages and they would be no use at all in foggy weather. This would be a real difficulty for Cook when he used two vessels in his second voyage of discovery. In the month’s they explored for a southern continent they needed to resort to cannon fire and the lighting of fires on deck to keep in contact in the ice strewn and stormy waters of the southern ocean.

Phil explained to us how Cook and the commander of the Discovery Lieutenant Furneaux arranged a rendezvous at New Zealand should they become separated. This worked once but on the second occasion Furneaux failed to show up and so Cook buried a bottle with his exploration plans in a bottle beneath a tree. The tree was scratched with advice to look below. Wouldn’t you just know it but the Discovery finally arrived just after Cook and the Resolution had given up the ghost and Furneaux did indeed look below the tree to find the bottle of instructions.

This was such an entertaining talk by Phil, painting a picture of a Royal Navy that was a huge organisation. Far bigger than today. One warship alone could carry 800 men on board. The navy at that time had a massive fleet and manpower would be massively boosted up at times of war. In the 18th century the next naval conflict was never far away. You really have to wonder just how a pre-industrial economy managed to finance it.

This was a fascinating afternoon in one of my favourite buildings anywhere, The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum. Having been brought up at Marton and taught at Captain Cook Infant and Junior schools Cook is in my blood. Thanks to the work of Phil Philo and his faithful museum crew the great explorer will continue to find a place in the heart and minds of many more citizens of Middlesbrough and those that sail here from far beyond.

As for Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen their choice of a Bottle Of Notes was more symbolic of Cook than they could ever have imagined. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.



Gigantic Thursday in Stewart Park

There were runners to the left of me and runners to the right and yet I was on my way to a talk. Stewart Park was a hive of activity and grey matter when a North Yorks Moors Athletic Club relay event coincided with a talk on Captain Cook and Easter Island at the Birthplace Museum. Stewart Park as always was right at the heart of the community and the place to be one Thursday evening in May.

Isaac Smith pictured as an old man

Middlesbrough’s senior museum curator Phil Philo was delivering the talk Those Gigantic Statues as part of a programme of events in conjunction with the Royal Geographical Society. It also had a slot in Middlesbrough Local History Month’s agenda and the £5 fee also allowed a free wander round the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum whose galleries were revamped last year. There was also a chance to peruse a fascinating free exhibition, Learning the Ropes, comparing the life at sea of Captain Cook and his young apprentice and nephew, Isaac Smith. Portraits of both men stand at either end of the exhibition that compares the very different experiences of man and boy.

Meanwhile outside runner teams were competing in 4X100 relays, lapping the park. The fastest leg of all was posted by Middlesbrough and Cleveland Harriers Greg Jayasuira. Greg broke his own course record racing to a time of only 4mins 35 seconds. Remember Stewart Park is far from flat. It was the final bank that did for Olympic Paralympian Wondiye Fikre Indelbu (Wandy) who fought Greg right round the lap but was 2 seconds behind crossing the line.

Those Gigantic Statues was a talk about Easter Island, marking the 240th anniversary of Cook’s ship putting in for water, food and timber at the mysterious island. After 3 months at sea in the storm tossed and icy southern oceans Cook would only stop 2 days on the remote island that could not provide any of the necessities his crew and ship required. It did however provide many drawings of the incredible statues by talented artist William Hodges and many questions to fascinate his scientists, Johann and Georg Forster. A fascination and mystery that has intoxicated people ever since. How on earth did they carve those enormous figures, what were they for and how on earth did they drag them from the quarries to the position standing silently watching over the islanders?

Phil sought to chart the route taken around and then excursions across the island by Cook’s crew, the captain himself was recovering from illness. A second link to this region was mentioned when Katherine Routledge, originally from Darlington explored the island and excavated the statues in 1913-14.

The moai, the statues continue to have a grip on us to this day. It seems they may have actually been “walked” from the quarries, as you might walk a heavy piece of furniture when re-positioning it at home. It would have taken a vast amount of man power and a great will to do this. The present Easter Island Statue Project is seeking to look again at the ancient society responsible and the giants themselves.

There are items in the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum collection traded from the islanders that show incredible artistry and craftsmanship. It was useful to be able to go the gallery after the talk and view the Easter Island collection. It has also whetted my appetite to go to the British Museum and look upon the giant statue they have there with all its complicated markings on the rear.

Those Gigantic Statues was part of Middlesbrough Local History Month and a programme of talks for the Royal Geographical Society – Institute of Geographers. There will be another talk later this month. Phil Philo followed on from Sir David Attenborough’s recent sell out lecture at Middlesbrough Theatre where he discussed a small statuette owned by himself that had been recovered by Cook’s voyage to Easter Island.

Learning the Ropes (free) exhibition continues until Sunday November 2nd at Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, Marton.

The next Captain Cook talk will be on Thursday 19th June – Land of the Long White Cloud:Captain Cook’s Visits to New Zealand, 1769-78 – 6.15pm for 6.30pm by Phil Philo, Senior Curator Museums. Tickets £5 email


Captain Cook Birthday Week in the Park

Captain Cook Birthplace Museum went into hibernation today on its winter shutdown. I was actually the last person to wander round the galleries that have proved such a big draw since they were radically remodelled at the start of the year. It was a sad occasion but also the museum was in many ways going out on a high after hundreds of children joined in the celebrations for James Cook’s 285th birthday earlier on last week.

James Cook’s birthday was celebrated a stone’s throw away from his actual birthplace, now marked by a granite vase beyond the stone portico remnant of Marton Hall. Last Sunday runners sprinted around the park’s footpaths on the inaugural Cook relay race, a circumference of the park rather than the world. Organised by Stewart parkrun this Discover Middlesbrough event could now become a regular in the calendar, at the start of the half term holidays. I even dressed up as Captain Cook to start the runners on their way.

On Tuesday hundreds of children bustled around the museum’s education room busily engaged in craft activities with Curator Jenny Phillips. Between getting their faces painted. They were also distracted by feeding those faces on Captain Cook’s birthday cake served up by Curator Phil Philo.

On Friday Phil gave a fascinating talk about the massacre in Green Cove New Zealand on Cook’s second voyage. Ten sailors were killed in a bloody altercation with Maori’s in a culture clash that tells us as much about 18th century English thinking as Maori. This was immediately after the famous message in a bottle (Middlesbrough Bottle of Notes) had been buried by Cook for the occupants of his estranged second ship.

The Captain Cook Society Conference last weekend brought in scholars and enthusiasts from far and wide. Such is the draw of the man voted Middlesbrough’s most famous inhabitant that even today his legacy is debated over right across the globe that is represented in the centre of the main park path that the relay runners sprinted over in their race. Captain Cook filled in many gaps on the 18th century globe and is now helping to ensure that we are still on the world map.

You will have to wait now until next Easter to peruse the new galleries in the Birthplace Museum. Being myself a Martoner I love the mock ups and information about Cook’s Marton. Or the lost village of East Marton to be more precise. The remaining rooms show how this son of a farm labourer rose up through the ranks to break through every barrier of class and position to become a captain of three expeditions that were at the cutting edge of science, adventure and discovery. And exceptional danger.

The exhibits from the peoples Cook met are so revealing, shining a light on different cultures and traditions. James Cook was enlightened enough to recognise that many of these people were happier in their lifestyles than back in so called civilised Europe. Like a latter-day Captain Kirk or Dr Who Timelord, Cook was loathe to intervene in politics or disputes in the South Seas. Of course the irony is that Cook opened up many of these island to the outside world and so often to cultural annihilation. That is why in the feedback film at the end of the tour some of modern day occupants of Pacific and Australasia view James Cook very much as a baddy and a bringer of death rather than a great man.

I was in Stewart Park several times last week and no matter what the weather the car park always seemed to be near full and the two cafes, Nana Toms in the museum and Henry’s café through the arch of the Henry Bolckow Centre doing a roaring trade. On Tuesday, children were busy scavenging leaves and branches for Autumnal Art. On Thursday it was pumpkin carving, 70 children busily engaged in making Halloween pumpkins. I wonder what James Cook would make of this tradition? I don’t think even the use of hollowed out turnips or Swedes dates back to the 18th century but Cook would have been fascinated to record the event. Perhaps his artist from the first expedition, Sidney Parkinson would have sketched and painted the scene. The great scientist Joseph Banks would have been keen to take specimens of the carved pumpkins, perhaps trading clothes, or even ships nails in exchange.

The exciting improvements and refurbishment works in the museum were made possible thanks to a legacy grant of £50,000 from the Arts Council Strategic Fund. Stewart Park as a whole has enjoyed a massive revamp as a result of a whopping £4.4m lottery grant. But that is money so well spent with the park being such a vital green lung for all of Middlesbrough’s citizens. Kids come to look at the animals and kick the falling leaves from far and wide across Teesside and beyond.

At 4.15pm yesterday the museum closed its doors. “See you next year,” I said. The building will remain open for the café and toilets but sadly Captain Cook will now be hibernating in his museum until next Easter.