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Let's get physical

Let's get physical

Dr Alice Roberts is a physical anthropologist from the University of Bristol who first appeared on TV back in 2001 on Channel 4's Time Team. Following a wee jaunt on the beach with the hugely successful BBC series 'Coast', she enthralled us with her passion for human anatomy in the series "Don't Die Young".

Always on the trail of top science, the Null's very own Andrew Impey, got the low down on all things physical.

Your TV work to date has covered a number of different topics but which has been the most fun?  
They've all been amazing in their own individual ways and I feel very privileged and lucky just to have been part of it all. I've had the opportunity to talk to some amazing people along the way and I've even learnt to climb.

Don't Die Young is a fascinating insight into the human body and how it functions but which organ best describes you as a person?
That's a difficult one. Maybe the liver - I'm a bit of a multi-tasker but sometimes I take on too much. And I don't make bile. Oh, but then I do!

And if you had a special scientific power for the day what would it be?
Flying for sure. Humans can't fly and bumblebees aren't meant to be able to either - their trick is something to do with getting little vortices to trail off the edges of their wings so maybe I need to practice that with my arms.

So what was it like going up in that stunt plane during your recent filming?
Quite scary, but then I was doing 5 G with an ex-Red Arrows pilot at the controls! He flung me around doing loops, cuban-8s, and barrel rolls. Positive G just squishes you downwards and you sort of clench everything to resist it [Alice does an impression of a small gremlin in distress], whereas negative G is like going over a humpback bridge but more so - and your body just doesn't seem to know what to make of it - it's quite a horrible feeling.

So you won't be becoming the latest space tourist then?
No way. I'd be scared and probably homesick. The thought of looking out of the window and seeing the Earth getting smaller and smaller - no thanks!

Sorry we got side tracked. Back to your current series, was this your idea?
I was sitting around drinking tea with one of the producers of Coast - while we waited for the weather to clear - and she asked me if I had ideas about series I'd like to work on in the future. I said I'd love to present a series on anatomy because it's a subject I love - and something I thought we could do it in a really fresh and accessible way. Hopefully that's what we've achieved.

You discuss the issues of healthy living. Do you have any vices that probably aren't good for your health but you're happy to admit to?
I got a bit lazy for a couple of years and fell out of the habit of doing aerobics and going to the gym - but now I cycle to work every day. I do have a bit of a penchant for chips but nothing too outrageous. I used to sneak the odd cigarette now and again, but just doing the series and thinking about health all the time has even had the desired effect on me. I can't even consider blagging a cigarette from someone now. I've been amazed at how many people have written to me to say they gave up smoking after watching the programme on lungs and seeing just what cigarettes can really do.

If a little green man appeared from space and you had just one minute to amaze him about the human body, what would you tell him about?
Firstly I'd be very surprised to see an anthropomorphic alien because that would suggest either common ancestry or a really coincidental bit of convergent evolution. If he were green and slimy, I'd wonder if he breathed through his skin like an amphibian… I'd actually probably rather chat to him about himself and understand his body. But I'd share some stuff about mine as well.
[Where lesser mortals would run over the hill screaming, it takes more than a hypothetical alien to phase this anthropologist. Ever the professional, ever the scientist, it seems Alice will leave no stone unturned to get to the truth - even if that means chatting to a bipedal frog].

Is there one take home message from your current series that you want the public to take on board?
I wanted to strike a balance between science and health advice. I'm not telling anyone anything they won't have heard before - the advice is the same stuff you'd find on the NHS website or get from your GP; we've just tried to explain the science behind that advice, and present an enthralling topic in a way that people can relate to. Despite an inherent fascination with the way the human body works, most of us probably take it largely for granted. I've since had emails from members of the public saying that they can now understand how the lungs and kidneys work, when previously they didn't really have a clue. I really believe that knowledge is empowering - I suppose that's why I've ended up in a University and getting into public engagement with science as well.

It's been suggested that you could probably talk dirty in Latin while doing hard sums - were you ever any good at maths?
Useless. Ok not that bad, but statistics still scare me.

I remember on Coast you stepped in a 5000 yr old footprint - how did that feel?
It's a strange feeling, hard to describe and very bizarre. I'm not religious and I don't believe in life after death, but there is a strange connection that you feel because you're looking at what someone did thousands of years ago - a moment captured in time. It is actually quite sobering looking at those footprints that could have been made yesterday but are actually five millenia old. Those mesolithic people were no different to the way we are today (though perhaps with a slightly different clothes sense).

Human remains with strangely small heads have been discovered suggesting that Homo floresiensis should be classed as a completely different species. This is causing much debate in the archaeological world - where do you stand on this?
It's a very difficult one and it would be wrong of me to say too much without seeing the bones for myself. It's slightly brazen to say that it is definitely a new species given the diversity of our species but on the other hand it seems that there are too many of them to be a one-off pathology like microcephaly (a birth defect characterised by a small head - ed).

Technophile or technophobe?
Technophobe for sure; almost a complete luddite. I'm trying to get more 'with it' but I actually like the fact that I grew up in an era before we were at the mercy of technology every day (ie: the 1970's!!!). I hate 'labour-saving' devices like dishwashers. How hard is it to wash a few plates?

Do you have a favourite science fact or piece of science trivia?
This isn't so much a fact but I do love the clavicle (the collar bone); it's my favourite bone. It's looks good in a person's neck and is of huge embryological and evolutionary interest. What more do you want in a bone, or anyone for that matter?

Marmite: love it or hate it?
It's ok. It's a bit odd though; one of those things you're not quite sure about and it has to be thinly spread.

You surf, climb, paint, cycle and yet you still have time to grow organic food - do you have particularly green fingers?
Outside yes, inside no. I've killed so many house plants it's not true.

If you were PM for the day in charge of science communication, what would get an Alice makeover?
I'm not sure why but science has become separated from everyday life. Thousands of years ago someone smelting bronze would probably also have been a farmer; now our lives are so compartmentalised. Science needs to have a social conscience and should be more accessible. Maybe there should be more links with the arts and humanities; try and get everyone involved in science in some way, not just those wanting to do science at university.

People will assume you must have a planet-sized brain, but is there anything in science that amazes you, yet you haven't got a Scooby Doo how it works?
Physics! I did A-level and I could cope with dropping bricks at a certain velocity but string theory!!! Quantum physics - aaaaaaagh. I'm also just continually amazed by stuff that you can't see - like electricity. I believe in it, and things come on when you plug them in and switch it on - but still just a bit weird and magical. Also I've been electrocuted about 4 times so I think it's out to get me!

Is there one thing in either anatomy or archaeology that no matter how many times you see it, you still think, "wow"?
A skull, either anatomically or archaeologically, they're amazing. They contain the smallest bones in the body, the ossicles, and it's always amazing when you find these minute bones in an old skull. Just pick up a skull and turn it over; look at all the holes for all the nerves. Best of all, they are all different; no two look the same - they give form to our faces.

So what next for Alice Roberts in 2007?
Submitting my PhD is number one on my list. I'll continue with my work in public engagement of science and my university lecturing but I really want to get my teeth into my research this year. I'm looking forward to some quiet days in my bone lab and in the attic of museums looking at ape skeletons.

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17 Jul 2011
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