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Scientist Dr Alice Roberts

PUBLISHED: 23:26 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013

Alice Roberts discovers the ancient secret of growing rice in China

Alice Roberts discovers the ancient secret of growing rice in China

Scientist Dr Alice Roberts not only lights up the room with her lively intelligence, but also has something in common with Katie Jarvis's spaniel...a favourite bone

"If I were designing the human eye," says Dr Alice Roberts, "I wouldn't have the wiring coming off the front, getting in the way of the light coming in. I'd take all the wires off the back so you wouldn't have a blind spot. Squids' eyes are the right way round, but ours aren't."


God, if he/she is listening, is presumably clapping hand to forehead, and muttering, "Of course! Of course!" OK, it might seem obvious now, but Alice Roberts has the benefit of hindsight: several million years' worth to date.


Not that she believes in God. "There are interesting bits about anatomy that make you realise there wasn't an intelligent designer because there are things that are really stupid, such as the eye.


"But what's interesting is you can actually see the steps along the way; you can see very early animals - not even fish yet - and they have little patches of light receptors; you can actually see the precursors to eyes."


If this comes over as anything but informed, chatty debate on her part, then I've got it wrong. Because that's what it is: the sort of fascinating conversation you'd go a long way to find; and without an arrogant bone among the 208 in her body. She's a dedicated anatomist - someone who's made their life work the study of the structure of living things. "I've realised if you cut me through the middle, at some point it says 'anatomy'," she chuckles.


Not only does she light up rooms with her lively intelligence; she's the only living creature I've met (bar my spaniel who, to be honest, has different motivations) with a favourite bone: the clavicle (or collar bone, to the rest of us). Why? Because it's another pathway back to those early naked reptilian days of ours that, generally, we'd rather our mother kept at the bottom of the photo drawer.


"The clavicle? Yes, it is my favourite bone! It's where the fins attached to the skull of the fish, and that's why, in the embryo, it turns into bone in a completely different way from other bones."


We're in a seminar room at Bristol University, where she's fresh from lecturing medical students on anatomy. She's recently returned from a year off making her latest series, The Incredible Human Journey, currently airing on BBC2, in which she travels the world, unravelling (at least some of) the mysteries of how every continent bar Antarctica came to be colonized by humans.


Has it been difficult to return to academia?


Daft question. "Difficult?" she repeats, as if trying to understand why on earth I'd even ask. "It's lovely to be back! I really missed teaching and I missed anatomy."


She's sailed on a 'Stone Age' raft off the coast of Indonesia, stood among 11,000-year-old standing stones in Southern Turkey, and visited the Ethiopian Valley where the earliest human fossils were discovered ("I was absolutely blown away to go to this place, which is the closest we can get to where our species originated"), but she knows - as with every other organ - precisely where her heart lies.


Actually, it's not so difficult to understand why she's happy to be back in Bristol. An atmosphere of extreme cleverness pervades this place: the very doors of the building seem to realise their movements are governed by Newton's Law. Medical students - bright, book-laden, busy - breeze in and out on their way to lectures; and in the foyer, where you might expect to find a photocopier, there's the skeleton of a llama on display.


But even Alice admits that after more than nine years at the university, it's good to take time off; to avoid becoming 'institutionalised'. And an offer of a BBC series, in pursuit of an interest she's had since a teenager, was too good to turn down. "The Incredible Human Journey is basically the story of the origin of our species and how we got everywhere around the world. Humans got into the continents very early on - we're talking way back in the Stone Age - and now we can trace those migrations and those expansions using genetics, but also using fossil evidence and archaeology as well," she explains in her clear, precise tones.


So was it necessity or pioneering spirit that took early humans out of Africa, around 50-80,000 years ago, throughout Asia into Europe, all the way down to Australia, and eventually - probably over the Bering land bridge, an ancient land mass that once united Siberia and Alaska - to the Americas.


"One of the things I'm really keen to get over is that, even though it's called the incredible human journey, 'journey' is very much a metaphor. We're not looking at people packing their bags and off they go to colonise Asia. Instead, you need to imagine families moving to the next beach along, perhaps: this is a gradual colonisation of the landscape that happened over thousands and thousands of years. You might have had a tribe where there was a big argument, and part moved off to live somewhere else. It might have been pressure of space; it might have been that they were overexploiting resources locally and literally running out of food and moving on.


"What's remarkable is that this all happened while people were still hunter-gatherers. Although we think of farming as something fundamental to our way of life, it is a relatively recent development." (NB Recent, in this instance, being around 10,000 years ago.)


Most 'journeys' might not have been dramatic, but Australia is an intriguing case in point. Always separated from the mainland by a substantial stretch of sea, early man was nevertheless lured there, presumably by the Neolithic equivalent of barbies and tinnies.


"Somebody has suggested that humans still ended up there by chance, but I find the idea of a pregnant woman on a log, washing up on a beach, rather a strange one! It could have been Indonesian people fishing and getting blown off course - but certainly the one thing we have to gift to them is the ability to use boats."


To prove the theory that people might have embarked on such a crossing some 50,000 years ago, Alice met up with experimental archaeologist Robert Bednarik, who has built bamboo rafts using stone tools.


"We paddled across this 11km stretch of water between Lombok and Sumbawa in Indonesia: I was quite nervous about it though, of course, you have safety boats with you. It started off incredibly easy: then, just as we got to Sumbawa, clouds began looming over the mountain and the waves started whipping up, and we found it incredibly difficult to land the raft. There were several times I thought I was going to have to abort the mission because it was getting quite dangerous. I've fallen off a surfboard and been hit on the head by it: I didn't want the same to happen with a two-ton bamboo raft!"


Another magnificent highlight was visiting Turkey's Gobekli Tepe, a temple on a hill near the Syrian border, which is believed to predate Stonehenge by 6,000 years. In doing so, it puts a spanner in the works of conventional prehistory.


"It was built by hunter-gatherers; but organized religion - which is presumably what this is - isn't meant to come along until people start to settle down and farm. It's a wonderful place, beautifully carved with foxes and boars and vultures. The director of the site, Klaus Schmidt, thinks this may suggest religion was a driver to settling down. This is what made people come together in large numbers."


It seems we have more in common than we might think with these early peoples. Would we recognize them as one of our own?


"You can tackle that question in a very visual way. In the programme, we have done a couple of facial reconstructions, one of them of a 120,000-year-old skull found in Israel, and, yes, it looks like a modern human being."


Someone you might pass in Bristol city centre?


"Well, we're an ethnically diverse city, so yes." Bizarre that we can look so far back into the past. "I know," she laughs. "Crazy, isn't it!"


Her own curiosity in the human body was piqued at the age of eight, when she watched a mummy being unwrapped at Bristol Museum. Her parents imagined it would be a 20-minute visit, but their daughter couldn't be dragged away. After qualifying as a doctor, she intended to become a surgeon, but got side-tracked by an anatomy teacher who'd bring in archaeological specimens. It led Alice into a different field of research which, in turn, resulted in an invite to join Channel 4's Time Team as a specialist bone advisor and general presenter. Since then, she's added to her CV the spin-off series Extreme Archaeology , BBC's Coast, and Don't Die Young, a health series she wrote and presented.


She's a youthful breath of fresh air. Combined with an impeccable academic record and scores of letters after her name (senior teaching fellow, degree in medicine and in anatomy), she also dyes her hair red: how much more of a perfect combination could you get?


If viewers love her for her looks, they also value her ability to explain complex subjects clearly and interestingly. And that's something she thinks hugely important. It's one of the reasons she's been so keen to be involved with Cheltenham Science Festival. "The festival is another way of giving people the tools to make decisions, because I think we can all make very rash decisions based on visceral reactions to things: big decisions such as where research should be going, how to tackle climate change, whether we should be using genetically-modified food. If you were going to buy a house, you would go and look round that house; you would tap the plaster to make sure it wasn't falling off the walls; you would arm yourself with information before you made your decision. It's exactly the same sort of thing with science: I don't think people can be too informed or too engaged."


Plus, of course, it's all about having fun. "Cheltenham is fantastic and I've very excited to be involved. One of the nicest things about it is that it really does feel like a celebration."


During the festival, Alice will be presenting sessions on the human journey - one for children and one for adults; it doesn't take a genius to realise they'll be sell-out events. But so diverse are her interests, she could talk on any number of things. Ask her if there's anything else she'd like to mention, and the list is eclectic: colonic irrigation (sheer stupidity, she says); what humans will be like a million years from now (may look the same but they'd be a different species). She's thrilled by changes in the Anatomy Act that, for the first time, allow bodies to be used by doctors practising operations: "It may even lead to developing new operations. It's going to make a real difference." She's extremely keen to encourage young people to take up science, but against them being made to specialise too early. "It encourages them to think of themselves as either scientist or creative person - one or the other - which I find slightly strange because I certainly consider I have elements of both - and most people do. The best scientists are incredibly creative; they have to come up with ideas, be able to think laterally, and be capable of joining up ideas from lots of different areas."


And what about her own future plans? "I finished my PhD last year, and now I've several projects I'm thinking about. But the main thing that's concrete is going to Mongolia in September to study burial archaeology, on an exploration led by Mark Horton [a fellow presenter on Coast].


For television?


"Might be, but it's primarily academic."


So that's Alice Roberts sorted. But what about the rest of us? Does this insightful anatomist, who's looked so far into the past, see a glorious future for the human race? (Spoiler warning: If you're not good at taking criticism - constructive or otherwise - then finish reading here.)


"I'm not religious," she says, "and I absolutely do not believe that humans are a special creation. I think there are lots of very lovely special things about us and we're very lucky to have those things: we've got consciousness; we can make things and change the environment around us; we can do science and do art, and it's lovely.


"But I think we sometimes have a skewed idea of our own specialness. My favourite quote in the world is from Stephen Jay Gould: 'Life is a copiously branching bush continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction'." She laughs. "I love that," she says, "because, sometime, we will be pruned... We will be pruned."


Cheltenham Science Festival runs from June 3-7. Log onto cheltenhamfestivals.com for details of the programme or book tickets on 0844 576 8970.


The incredible Human Journey is currently showing on Sundays on BBC2



"If I were designing the human eye," says Dr Alice Roberts, "I wouldn't have the wiring coming off the front, getting in the way of the light coming in. I'd take all the wires off the back so you wouldn't have a blind spot. Squids' eyes are the right way round, but ours aren't."


God, if he/she is listening, is presumably clapping hand to forehead, and muttering, "Of course! Of course!" OK, it might seem obvious now, but Alice Roberts has the benefit of hindsight: several million years' worth to date.


Not that she believes in God. "There are interesting bits about anatomy that make you realise there wasn't an intelligent designer because there are things that are really stupid, such as the eye.


"But what's interesting is you can actually see the steps along the way; you can see very early animals - not even fish yet - and they have little patches of light receptors; you can actually see the precursors to eyes."


If this comes over as anything but informed, chatty debate on her part, then I've got it wrong. Because that's what it is: the sort of fascinating conversation you'd go a long way to find; and without an arrogant bone among the 208 in her body. She's a dedicated anatomist - someone who's made their life work the study of the structure of living things. "I've realised if you cut me through the middle, at some point it says 'anatomy'," she chuckles.


Not only does she light up rooms with her lively intelligence; she's the only living creature I've met (bar my spaniel who, to be honest, has different motivations) with a favourite bone: the clavicle (or collar bone, to the rest of us). Why? Because it's another pathway back to those early naked reptilian days of ours that, generally, we'd rather our mother kept at the bottom of the photo drawer.


"The clavicle? Yes, it is my favourite bone! It's where the fins attached to the skull of the fish, and that's why, in the embryo, it turns into bone in a completely different way from other bones."


We're in a seminar room at Bristol University, where she's fresh from lecturing medical students on anatomy. She's recently returned from a year off making her latest series, The Incredible Human Journey, currently airing on BBC2, in which she travels the world, unravelling (at least some of) the mysteries of how every continent bar Antarctica came to be colonized by humans.


Has it been difficult to return to academia?


Daft question. "Difficult?" she repeats, as if trying to understand why on earth I'd even ask. "It's lovely to be back! I really missed teaching and I missed anatomy."


She's sailed on a 'Stone Age' raft off the coast of Indonesia, stood among 11,000-year-old standing stones in Southern Turkey, and visited the Ethiopian Valley where the earliest human fossils were discovered ("I was absolutely blown away to go to this place, which is the closest we can get to where our species originated"), but she knows - as with every other organ - precisely where her heart lies.


Actually, it's not so difficult to understand why she's happy to be back in Bristol. An atmosphere of extreme cleverness pervades this place: the very doors of the building seem to realise their movements are governed by Newton's Law. Medical students - bright, book-laden, busy - breeze in and out on their way to lectures; and in the foyer, where you might expect to find a photocopier, there's the skeleton of a llama on display.


But even Alice admits that after more than nine years at the university, it's good to take time off; to avoid becoming 'institutionalised'. And an offer of a BBC series, in pursuit of an interest she's had since a teenager, was too good to turn down. "The Incredible Human Journey is basically the story of the origin of our species and how we got everywhere around the world. Humans got into the continents very early on - we're talking way back in the Stone Age - and now we can trace those migrations and those expansions using genetics, but also using fossil evidence and archaeology as well," she explains in her clear, precise tones.


So was it necessity or pioneering spirit that took early humans out of Africa, around 50-80,000 years ago, throughout Asia into Europe, all the way down to Australia, and eventually - probably over the Bering land bridge, an ancient land mass that once united Siberia and Alaska - to the Americas.


"One of the things I'm really keen to get over is that, even though it's called the incredible human journey, 'journey' is very much a metaphor. We're not looking at people packing their bags and off they go to colonise Asia. Instead, you need to imagine families moving to the next beach along, perhaps: this is a gradual colonisation of the landscape that happened over thousands and thousands of years. You might have had a tribe where there was a big argument, and part moved off to live somewhere else. It might have been pressure of space; it might have been that they were overexploiting resources locally and literally running out of food and moving on.


"What's remarkable is that this all happened while people were still hunter-gatherers. Although we think of farming as something fundamental to our way of life, it is a relatively recent development." (NB Recent, in this instance, being around 10,000 years ago.)


Most 'journeys' might not have been dramatic, but Australia is an intriguing case in point. Always separated from the mainland by a substantial stretch of sea, early man was nevertheless lured there, presumably by the Neolithic equivalent of barbies and tinnies.


"Somebody has suggested that humans still ended up there by chance, but I find the idea of a pregnant woman on a log, washing up on a beach, rather a strange one! It could have been Indonesian people fishing and getting blown off course - but certainly the one thing we have to gift to them is the ability to use boats."


To prove the theory that people might have embarked on such a crossing some 50,000 years ago, Alice met up with experimental archaeologist Robert Bednarik, who has built bamboo rafts using stone tools.


"We paddled across this 11km stretch of water between Lombok and Sumbawa in Indonesia: I was quite nervous about it though, of course, you have safety boats with you. It started off incredibly easy: then, just as we got to Sumbawa, clouds began looming over the mountain and the waves started whipping up, and we found it incredibly difficult to land the raft. There were several times I thought I was going to have to abort the mission because it was getting quite dangerous. I've fallen off a surfboard and been hit on the head by it: I didn't want the same to happen with a two-ton bamboo raft!"


Another magnificent highlight was visiting Turkey's Gobekli Tepe, a temple on a hill near the Syrian border, which is believed to predate Stonehenge by 6,000 years. In doing so, it puts a spanner in the works of conventional prehistory.


"It was built by hunter-gatherers; but organized religion - which is presumably what this is - isn't meant to come along until people start to settle down and farm. It's a wonderful place, beautifully carved with foxes and boars and vultures. The director of the site, Klaus Schmidt, thinks this may suggest religion was a driver to settling down. This is what made people come together in large numbers."


It seems we have more in common than we might think with these early peoples. Would we recognize them as one of our own?


"You can tackle that question in a very visual way. In the programme, we have done a couple of facial reconstructions, one of them of a 120,000-year-old skull found in Israel, and, yes, it looks like a modern human being."


Someone you might pass in Bristol city centre?


"Well, we're an ethnically diverse city, so yes." Bizarre that we can look so far back into the past. "I know," she laughs. "Crazy, isn't it!"


Her own curiosity in the human body was piqued at the age of eight, when she watched a mummy being unwrapped at Bristol Museum. Her parents imagined it would be a 20-minute visit, but their daughter couldn't be dragged away. After qualifying as a doctor, she intended to become a surgeon, but got side-tracked by an anatomy teacher who'd bring in archaeological specimens. It led Alice into a different field of research which, in turn, resulted in an invite to join Channel 4's Time Team as a specialist bone advisor and general presenter. Since then, she's added to her CV the spin-off series Extreme Archaeology , BBC's Coast, and Don't Die Young, a health series she wrote and presented.


She's a youthful breath of fresh air. Combined with an impeccable academic record and scores of letters after her name (senior teaching fellow, degree in medicine and in anatomy), she also dyes her hair red: how much more of a perfect combination could you get?


If viewers love her for her looks, they also value her ability to explain complex subjects clearly and interestingly. And that's something she thinks hugely important. It's one of the reasons she's been so keen to be involved with Cheltenham Science Festival. "The festival is another way of giving people the tools to make decisions, because I think we can all make very rash decisions based on visceral reactions to things: big decisions such as where research should be going, how to tackle climate change, whether we should be using genetically-modified food. If you were going to buy a house, you would go and look round that house; you would tap the plaster to make sure it wasn't falling off the walls; you would arm yourself with information before you made your decision. It's exactly the same sort of thing with science: I don't think people can be too informed or too engaged."


Plus, of course, it's all about having fun. "Cheltenham is fantastic and I've very excited to be involved. One of the nicest things about it is that it really does feel like a celebration."


During the festival, Alice will be presenting sessions on the human journey - one for children and one for adults; it doesn't take a genius to realise they'll be sell-out events. But so diverse are her interests, she could talk on any number of things. Ask her if there's anything else she'd like to mention, and the list is eclectic: colonic irrigation (sheer stupidity, she says); what humans will be like a million years from now (may look the same but they'd be a different species). She's thrilled by changes in the Anatomy Act that, for the first time, allow bodies to be used by doctors practising operations: "It may even lead to developing new operations. It's going to make a real difference." She's extremely keen to encourage young people to take up science, but against them being made to specialise too early. "It encourages them to think of themselves as either scientist or creative person - one or the other - which I find slightly strange because I certainly consider I have elements of both - and most people do. The best scientists are incredibly creative; they have to come up with ideas, be able to think laterally, and be capable of joining up ideas from lots of different areas."


And what about her own future plans? "I finished my PhD last year, and now I've several projects I'm thinking about. But the main thing that's concrete is going to Mongolia in September to study burial archaeology, on an exploration led by Mark Horton [a fellow presenter on Coast].


For television?


"Might be, but it's primarily academic."


So that's Alice Roberts sorted. But what about the rest of us? Does this insightful anatomist, who's looked so far into the past, see a glorious future for the human race? (Spoiler warning: If you're not good at taking criticism - constructive or otherwise - then finish reading here.)


"I'm not religious," she says, "and I absolutely do not believe that humans are a special creation. I think there are lots of very lovely special things about us and we're very lucky to have those things: we've got consciousness; we can make things and change the environment around us; we can do science and do art, and it's lovely.


"But I think we sometimes have a skewed idea of our own specialness. My favourite quote in the world is from Stephen Jay Gould: 'Life is a copiously branching bush continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction'." She laughs. "I love that," she says, "because, sometime, we will be pruned... We will be pruned."


Cheltenham Science Festival runs from June 3-7. Log onto cheltenhamfestivals.com for details of the programme or book tickets on 0844 576 8970.


The incredible Human Journey is currently showing on Sundays on BBC2



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