The Curious Mind of Mary Roach

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Thank goodness for the curious mind of Mary Roach. Without it we would never have found out the hilarious peculiarities of applying the scientific method. I know the terms ‘hilarious’ and ‘scientific method’ are rarely used in the same sentence, but read one of Roach’s wonderful books and you will understand that in her world they actually fit quite well together. Also things can get a bit, well, gross and embarrassing. Throwing caution to the wind, she isn’t afraid to find out exactly what happens when you blend science and odd topics such as death, the afterlife, sex, space exploration and the digestive tract.

In preparation for her visit to the Everett Performing Arts Center on Saturday April 9th, which is part of the library’s 2016 Ways to Read series of programs, here is a brief rundown of her major works to date. For your convenience, I’ve listed them in the highly subjective order of least embarrassing/disturbing to most.
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Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
Many leave the idea of the possibility of life after death to religion, philosophy or psychics. Our author doggedly, and sincerely, interviews those who look for a measurable way of answering this age-old question. As you might guess, the results are a bit odd but never boring. Attempts to weigh the soul, analyze ectoplasm and record the sounds of ghosts are but a few of the activities examined. A particular favorite is the ‘Asking Questions Study’ at the University of Arizona where mediums were told to ask practical questions of the departed such as “How is the Weather?” and “Do you engage in sexual behavior?”

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Ah space. To boldly go where no one has gone before. But when nature calls, where, and more importantly how, do you actually ‘go’ in zero gravity? Forgoing the grand mission statements of NASA, Roach explores the very real problems of isolation and confinement for long periods of time, space hygiene, the perils of space sickness and how not to throw up in your helmet, and, of course, the difficulties of sex in zero gravity. The final frontier has never seemed less heroic, or more hilarious.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Once you realize the alimentary canal is just a fancy way of saying digestive tract, it might dawn on you that this book could get a tad gross. And while it does require a strong stomach (har, har) this work is well worth any unpleasantness that might arise. From the mouth to the, ahem, other end, our intrepid author doesn’t flinch from exploring the humor and surreal nature of scientific endeavors to find out just what happens when you eat a sandwich. Favorite chapter title: I’m all stopped up: Elvis Presley’s megacolon, and other ruminations on death by constipation.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
Brace yourself for penis cameras, coital imaging, prescription strength vibrators, mental orgasms, impotent pandas and orgasmic pigs when you crack the covers of this great book. You actually start to feel sorry for the scientists who study in the field, since the work they do is important but hard not to giggle at. Roach, and especially her husband, are really troopers in this one: volunteering to perform their conjugal duties at the Diagnostic Testing Unit of London’s Heart Hospital in the name of science. Talk about grace under pressure.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
The gruesome, but impossible to look away from, topic for this book is what happens to our bodies after death. Surprisingly a lot it turns out. If you are just trying to dispose of a body, you will learn about a number of ways to do so with sky burial being a personal favorite. This book also introduces you to many of the ‘jobs’ cadavers have: subjects for instructional surgery, realistic crash test dummies, ballistic trauma recipients, and simply rotting in a field to measure states of decay for forensic scientists. The classic macabre Roach humor is on display here, making this one of her most hilarious and memorable works.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

gulpWho would want to read a book about the alimentary canal?

Wait, the author is Mary Roach?

Who wouldn’t want to read it?

After all, eating is one of my favorite activities, and I don’t think I’m the only one. As they say on Arrested Development:

Michael: What do I always say is the most important thing?
George Michael: Breakfast?

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal takes the reader on a journey that follows our food from intake to outgo. Mary Roach just gets better with each book she writes. She’s got a dry sense of humor, but one that would make a 12-year-old boy lose milk up his nose (think body noise jokes if you’re unsure). She is also a tireless researcher. I wish I could ask people the off-the–wall kinds of questions she asks her interviewees.

We start our journey with the food we eat and how we experience it, which is much studied by scientists. Surprisingly, a lot of that experiencing is done through the sense of smell rather than taste. Roach, however, brings the common sense opinion to the table that we don’t actually choose our food based on nutrition but tend to base that selection on other emotions instead.

The author takes a few side trips to see how gastric research was done before sophisticated testing and instruments were available. She starts off with the curious case of Alexis St. Martin who accidentally had part of his side shot away. This left him with an opening to his stomach which never properly healed. His doctor, William Beaumont, was able to view the workings of his stomach through this hole, and insert various food items (eww-dinner and a movie) directly into the stomach to watch the working of the gastric acid.

I’ve never given much thought to saliva, but this book had me fascinated by it. Did you know there are 2 kinds of saliva? It is kind of gross, but these chapters really made me laugh as they described various experiments to measure and classify spit. How fun would it be to visit a spit lab?

The book goes on to describe the rest of the bodily processes that digest our food and convert it to nutrients and eventually waste. I know it seems like I’m gushing, but it was fascinating and often hilarious reading. Bodies are complex. Bodies are also funny and awesome.

One of the doctors interviewed by Roach points out that we should be thankful that our guts have evolved the way they have. The gorilla, a fellow ape, has a digestive system that must ferment the vegetation he eats, and thus is less sophisticated than our own. “He’s processing leaves all day. Just sitting and chewing and cooking inside. There’s no room for great thoughts.” And be thankful you’re not a zombie, because their digestive systems are set up to digest only one thing: brains.

While the topic might seem a bit off-putting at first, after reading Gulp you will find yourself agreeing with the author when she asks:

How is it that we find Christina Aguilera more interesting than the inside of our own bodies?

Kathy