Katherine MacAlister talks to professor, paleopathologist and presenter Alice Roberts ahead of Blenheim Palace Literary Festival

Dr Alice Roberts wrote her latest book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being — Evolution And The Making Of Us — on maternity leave with her second child.

This tells you more about her than any TV show, because not only is she a bone expert, but has a work ethic to match, the ability to multi-task at an extraordinary rate, and a healthy disregard for the restrictions of motherhood.

She’s a doer, teacher, scientist, medic, anatomist, osteoarchaeologist, anthropologist, paleopathologist, author, mother and wife, giving each facet of her personality her notoriously focused and appealing energy, and in so doing has become TV’s new face of science.

Her television shows Coast, Time Team, Digging For Britain, The Incredible Human Journey and an upcoming series about the Celts, mean her ability to translate facts and science is proven.

But her desire, urge even, to impart her knowledge to others, is a compulsion, making her an obvious choice for the job.

“It really is an overwhelming need to go out and tell everyone about science,” she tells me.

“I remember as a medical student, looking at the development of mammals’ skulls, sitting there in a dark room in front of a microscope when I spotted a tiny bit of cartilage in a ferret’s skull that no one had ever noticed before, and I was desperate to tell someone about it, desperate,” she laughs.

“In fact I’ve never been as lonely as I was when doing my PhD.

“But I didn’t know I would find a calling until I started teaching when learning to be a surgeon to help with my anatomy exams and then stayed for 11 years. I just loved it; the interaction, the creativity, the scholarship.But if I had remained a surgeon I’m sure I’d be just as happy.”

Instead Alice Roberts was picked up by Time Team, who were excavating an Anglo-Saxon burial site at Breamore in Hampshire and needed her expertise.

“They knew they would be unearthing a lot of skeletons, because it was a burial ground, and needed me to process the bones, which sounds impressive but is actually just me with a toothbrush and a bowl of water,” she laughs.

But why her and not an an archaeologist?

“Everyone has their own speciality and I’m a human bone specialist so I’ve worked a lot with Home Office pathologists as well. Having been on lots of digs with my husband, who’s an archaeologist, helped though.”

Was he jealous?

“Slightly, because I was investigating Bronze Age burial sites and Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and Neolithic caves, but to be honest he was more interested in what he was doing.”

Dr Roberts's daughter was only two months old at the time, so she took the whole family with her.

“I had an amazing tweed jacket which hid many sins and travelling around as family worked really really well. Channel 4 took a risk with me having a large entourage and needing to feed my baby, but they were really accommodating and it worked out really well. I think the crew liked it too, because they got proper lunch breaks,” she laughs.

“And of course I had to weigh it up, but Channel 4 said if it didn’t work out they could find someone else, so I had a get out clause, and it was such a fantastic opportunity - British archaeology as it happened, and a really, really exciting project.”

Next came the BBC’s geographical and environmental series Coast: “Coast was a completely different scenariobecause the BBC came to me and it was the first time I’d presented. On Time Team I was the expert but I loved the fact that it was part history, part wildlife, part science, because I think we do tend to ghettoise science, so it was like an apprenticeship in presenting.”

Dr Roberts is now currently touring her new book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being (which combines embryology, genetics, anatomy, evolution and zoology to tell the story of the human body), which brings her to Blenheim Literary Festival next week, and after that she’s filming a few episodes of Digging For Britain and scheduling in a new series about the Celts with Neil Oliver.

“I’ve been wanting to write this book for ages,” the 41-year-old tells me, “because I love embryology so needed to tell people about it by stripping away the jargon, so I got quite good at tapping away at my computer and breastfeeding at the same time. I think it’s a myth that people switch off during maternity leave so it was nice to have something to do.”

“But that’s having children, isn’t it, and somehow you do it and sort it all out. I’ve never met a mother who says motherhood wasn’t worth it. And having stayed with tribes all over the world, the overwhelming difference between us and them is not our material possessions, or our homes, but the way they incorporate their children into their lives in everything they do.

"So although the answer isn’t going back to being hunter/gatherers, we need to look at the quality of our lives and try to incorporate our families more. And because I’m a woman and have two young children, I'm more painfully aware of that.”

Not that Alice Roberts minds such a busy schedule (she is also Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham).

“I don’t find it that difficult to manage my time, and love the autonomy of being able to follow what I find fascinating. My post at Birmingham is part-time, which works well, although it can be tricky fitting filming around lectures sometimes.”

So what spurs her on?

“People’s thirst for knowledge doesn’t stop just because you leave full time education, especially where science is concerned because its advancing all the time and we need to be scientifically literate. But more than that it is a thirst for knowledge that drives me. I always want to find out more for myself and then tell everyone about it.”

But a friend of mine summed her up best: “Alice Roberts makes complicated things easy to understand and boring things interesting.”

What better gift can a broadcaster have?

  • Dr Alice Roberts is at Blenheim Literary Festival on Thursday, September 25, to discuss her new book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being. For more details, see blenheimpalaceliteraryfestival.com