Alice’s won­der­land

When did dogs be­come pets? How did toma­toes be­come part of the Euro­pean diet? Pro­fes­sor Alice Roberts ex­plains all in her ex­cit­ing new show ‘Tamed’ at the Nor­wich Science Fes­ti­val

EDP Norfolk - - Inside - Pro­fes­sor Alice Roberts ‘Tamed’ is at The Play­house, Nor­wich, on Oc­to­ber 24. For tick­ets see nor­wich­science­fes­ti­val.co.uk

Pro­fes­sor takes us on a sci­en­tific jour­ney

FOR ALL those who con­sider science to be a dry, un­fath­omable, in­ac­ces­si­ble sub­ject, a few min­utes in the com­pany of Pro­fes­sor Alice Roberts will most def­i­nitely change your mind.

Al­though her ca­reer started in medicine, and then moved into academia and the study of hu­man anatomy, her ex­per­tise and in­ter­est ex­pands way be­yond.

Her sci­en­tific work crosses many fields, from pa­le­on­tol­ogy, ar­chae­ol­ogy, his­tory and an­thro­pol­ogy to ad­vanced ge­net­ics and ad­vances in DNA – but all with one com­mon theme, to un­der­stand more about hu­man ori­gins and how the past can teach us about the fu­ture.

Her en­thu­si­asm is ex­traor­di­nar­ily in­fec­tious and that, com­bined with her abil­ity to make science so re­lat­able and ac­ces­si­ble, has led her to oc­ca­sion­ally step away from the lec­ture the­atre and into a hugely suc­cess­ful tele­vi­sion and writ­ing ca­reer.

“Science is all about great sto­ries and we for­get that,” she says. “We talk a lot about science as some­thing wor­thy and very aca­demic and se­ri­ous, but ac­tu­ally it is of­ten about these fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries from our past. That is some­thing I ab­so­lutely love about it and want to share.”

Her new book is no dif­fer­ent – bring­ing to life the sto­ries of some of our most fa­mil­iar species and re­veal­ing some sur­prises along the way.

‘Tamed’ looks back over hun­dreds of thou­sands of years, from a time when our hunter-gath­erer an­ces­tors de­pended on wild plants and an­i­mals for sur­vival to the do­mes­ti­ca­tion of those same wild species, when the hu­man pop­u­la­tion boomed and they were ef­fec­tively tamed, and be­came cru­cial to the sur­vival and suc­cess of hu­mans.

The book will form the fo­cus of her show at this month’s Nor­wich Science Fes­ti­val as part of her na­tion­wide ‘Tamed’ tour. It fo­cuses on 10 species with wild pasts, that in Alice’s words, changed our world – from dogs, ap­ples and wheat to cat­tle, pota­toes and chick­ens.

“Rather than be­ing just a se­ries on hu­mans, I wanted to look at the per­spec­tive of do­mes­ti­cated species, about how we tame wild­ness. By look­ing at the do­mes­ti­ca­tion of these species we were able to dis­cover so much about our an­ces­tors and hope­fully these sto­ries will re­ally make peo­ple think.

“We made so many fas­ci­nat­ing dis­cov­er­ies. For ex­am­ple dogs were do­mes­ti­cated long be­fore any of our an­ces­tors thought about farming, which could have been the as­sump­tion. It was ac­tu­ally when our an­ces­tors were still very much hunter gath­er­ers when it oc­curred, around 30 to 40,000 years ago, back in the Ice Age.

“The re­search was like a great de­tec­tive story, grad­u­ally piec­ing to­gether the story from a dis­cov­ery of un­usual wolf like skulls, us­ing ar­chae­ol­ogy, ge­net­ics and DNA to de­ter­mine they were in fact very early dogs.”

Alice started her ca­reer in medicine and after qual­i­fy­ing was fo­cused on be­com­ing a sur­geon, be­fore a chance place­ment teach­ing anatomy to med­i­cal stu­dents led to a change in fo­cus.

“I al­ways planned to go back to my sur­gi­cal train­ing but I loved teach­ing anatomy and I re­alised it was my pas­sion,” Al­though I missed the in­ter­ac­tion with pa­tients, I loved the in­ter­ac­tion with the stu­dents and re­alised how much I loved the aca­demic side of this area of science. So I swapped liv­ing pa­tients for anatomy ca­dav­ers. Now I am very good at tak­ing peo­ple apart, not so good about putting them back to­gether,” she laughs.

Through a col­league of Alice’s hus­band, him­self a field ar­chae­ol­o­gist, Alice was asked by Chan­nel 4 pro­gramme Time Team whether she could pro­vide some be­hind the scenes help to write re­ports on some of the skele­tons un­earthed dur­ing the show’s digs.

“I pre­sented a show from Hap­pis­burgh which was a real high­light”

“They had a mas­sive back­log of skele­tons so I took them back to my lab and worked through them grad­u­ally. Then they got in touch as they were do­ing a mas­sive dig and wanted some­one to look at the bones on site as they came out of the ground. So I spent my time off help­ing out and some­how I found my­self ap­pear­ing on screen as a hu­man bone ex­pert.

“After a few sea­sons on Time Team they asked me if I would con­sider be­ing a pre­sen­ter on a new se­ries called Coast. I had no ex­pe­ri­ence as a pre­sen­ter so it was a steep learn­ing curve – but I did have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence as an aca­demic and a lec­turer and I don’t think teach­ing is that dif­fer­ent to pre­sent­ing.

“I loved work­ing on Coast, and it was a huge priv­i­lege. I learned so much and was lucky enough to visit some fas­ci­nat­ing beau­ti­ful places. I pre­sented a show from Hap­pis­burgh which was a real high­light as it is an in­cred­i­ble place. When we vis­ited, it was to learn more about the dis­cov­ery of these an­cient hand axes which was ex­cit­ing enough – and of course since then, the site has just got bet­ter and bet­ter with the in­cred­i­ble dis­cov­ery of the an­cient hu­man foot­prints, the old­est found out­side of Africa. It is ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

Such was Alice’s pop­u­lar­ity on Coast, it led to a host of other tele­vi­sion se­ries in­clud­ing The In­cred­i­ble Hu­man Jour­ney, Ori­gins of Us,

Ice Age Gi­ants and five sea­sons of Dig­ging for Bri­tain, with a sixth due to air this win­ter. This month she is fo­cus­ing on her ‘Tamed’ tour which comes to Nor­wich on Oc­to­ber 24 and she says she loves do­ing live shows. “A key part of my show is a Q&A with the au­di­ence which I think is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant. I am al­ways in­ter­ested to hear what peo­ple are in­ter­ested in, to hear their thoughts on it and that’s one of the rea­sons I love these gigs so much.

“There are some chal­lenges which will face us all in the fu­ture and some big is­sues to be tack­led. Some of the mo­ti­va­tions for writ­ing about science and ex­plor­ing the past is that you hope it can make a dif­fer­ence in shap­ing ideas and pol­icy for the fu­ture, and al­though some­times those sub­jects can be dif­fi­cult it is im­por­tant to have a di­a­logue with peo­ple.

“Science fes­ti­vals are a fan­tas­tic way to get peo­ple ex­cited and en­gaged. Science is not one sub­ject, it cov­ers so much which af­fects us all and what these fes­ti­vals do is recog­nise that science is not just hugely cul­tur­ally rel­e­vant, but also an aw­ful lot of fun. We have lit­er­ary and mu­sic fes­ti­vals so why not treat science fes­ti­vals in the same way?”

Above: Pro­fes­sor Alice Roberts

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