Alice Roberts Q&A: “Humans are probably doomed, but I’m still optimistic”

The biologist talks David Attenborough, appearing on Mastermind, and Barack Obama.

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Alice Roberts was born in Bristol in 1973. An evolutionary biologist, she is professor of public engagement in science at Birmingham University. She is known for her TV shows “Can Science Make Me Perfect?” and “Prehistoric Autopsy”.

What’s your earliest memory?

I’m standing at the bottom of a huge flight of stairs, holding a large, soft toy otter. I was in the Mansion House in Bristol, and it must have been 1975 – when my grandfather was Lord Mayor. When I returned as an adult the stairs were impressive, but not as huge as I’d remembered. I still have the otter, rather tattered now, and also much smaller in reality. I would have been two years old.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was David Attenborough. He opened my eyes to the wonder of the natural world. In fact, he’s still my hero. I interviewed him at the Science Museum in 2015, and he is such a thoughtful, humble and inspiring person.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here. Reich is a geneticist at Harvard, and his book describes the power of genetics to answer big questions about the origin of humans. His work has helped to reveal the mass migration and mixing of populations that has happened through history.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Barack Obama. I felt the world was in safe hands when he was at the helm.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I’ve done it! And my specialist subject was “The Moomin Novels of Tove Jansson”.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to pop along to 2073, to see how my own family is getting on – and also see how we’re getting on with looking after our global family. I’d hope to learn how we’d managed to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and preserve biodiversity. But then I’d come back to now, to all the people I love right here.

What TV show could you not live without?

None of them. But I’m still looking forward to the next episode of Dynasties.

What’s your theme tune?

The Pixies: “Monkey Gone to Heaven”.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Never start revising for an exam more than two weeks before (from my dad).

What’s currently bugging you?

How we can get a horse into the Royal Institution for my lectures without it defecating on the floor.

When were you happiest?

Moments stand out. On top of Crook Peak on the edge of the Mendips, with two friends and my husband, on the day we got married. The births of both my children – painful of course, but eclipsed by sheer joy. Paddling in kayaks, with my kids.

In another life, what job would you have chosen?

I would have stuck to my original plan and become a paediatric surgeon. Or an artist.

Are we all doomed?

As a species – probably. The fate of the vast majority of species on this planet has been extinction, eventually. But I’m optimistic that we can protect ourselves from threats in the near future, at least. We need to stop being so profligate with fossil fuels, to rein back climate change and protect biodiversity. We need to work together, globally, and I’m optimistic that we will. 

Alice Roberts delivered the 2018 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, broadcast on BBC Four, and is touring in January

This article appears in the 04 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions

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