Shaping the modern world

Last updated 05:00 08/04/2014
Cassie Newland

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British historical archaeologist Dr Cassie Newland is the co-host of four-part BBC series which looks at inventions to have helped shape the modern world. She talks to James Croot about The Genius of Invention.

What made you want to be a part of this show?

It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime kinds of opportunities. "Here, come and see all these industrial sites, all these machines that normally you need vast levels of security clearance to get anywhere near. Come and meet all these world experts in their fields and have them tell you exactly what you want to know about any question you want."

How did you and your co-hosts (materials scientist Dr Mark Midownik and former psychologist turned TV presenter Dr Michael Moseley) go about choosing the inventions to focus on?

He had quite a lot of animated discussions, which was fun. We started with an email list of inventions which was about the length of my arm. We then crossed out the ones that we thought wouldn't be possible to investigate, like the moon landings, and then narrowed it down to those which have supported us building the modern world. There were some close calls We really wanted to do the transistor but we didn't quite have enough time. I was very sad to lose that.

Did you lose any along the way because of logistics or commercial sensitivity concerns?

We were very jammy. They all came off but wrangling access to the turbine factory at Rolls Royce was quite prickly because of all the trade secrets. Someone worked really, really hard to make sure we had the right clearances. It took a lot of planning.

Where did your interest in archaeology come from?

I actually took quite a circuitous route. I didn't come to it until my late 30s, after I'd done a degree in economics and a career in web design. But my Dad is an engineer and from a young age I was stripping cars and he used to take me to work. He built things like Canary Wharf and I'd go down the foundations with him and pull bottles out.

Does doing a show like this help with your academic studies?

Funnily enough, I've just recently moved to King's College in London and started a project on scrambled messages with Mark. Being on the BBC is kind of a double-edged sword because while it's great that people get to know your work and you get to talk to people you wouldn't otherwise have access to, when you turn up at a conference you get other academics complaining that they didn't like how you explained the turbine or you glossed over some important facts. They don't understand that TV involves reaching a broader audience, so my response now is "yeah, but it would have taken three hours and a lot of diagrams".

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Finally, you specialise in modern archaeology, can you tell me a little bit about that?

Archaeology is the study of people and their stuff. If it can tell us about people 30,000 years ago why on earth can't it tell us about people today. And there is a lot we don't know about modern technology. Take cellphones for example.  I think we all know about the phones themselves, but we don't know much about the other bits of kit dotted around the landscape - the buildings and all sorts of weird things that make it all work.

Genius of Invention 8.30pm, Wednesday, BBC Knowledge

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