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.
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.