Author Features / Features / Nonfiction

Science for the Masses: Mary Roach Reports

by Nicole Wolverton

The devil is in the details, and nowhere is that more obvious than in Mary Roach’s body of work. Roach writes nonfiction science, and these books are far from the dry and boring textbooks you might remember from high school or college: the footnotes in Roach’s collection of hilarious science explorations contain some of the most entertaining asides. Of course, many of them are not for the faint of heart or easily offended. Her first book, Stiff, features a vivid description of the human capacity to endure pain—in the form of a patient sitting calmly while a medieval surgeon performs invasive surgery without anesthesia. And a Gulp footnote in a section about sex and the digestive tract introduces sexologist Thomas Lowry, the doctor who coined the scientific term for “fist fucking” (brachioproctic eroticism, in case you’re interested). None of this is to say that the non-footnote information in Roach’s books is any less fascinating and strange.

Whether Roach is discussing the varied adventures on which you can send your corpse (you can donate yourself—after death, of course—to a forensic body farm or a medical school, for instance); the intersection of science and sex; the realities of space travel and training for space; the vagaries of the alimentary canal (ever wanted to know how much you can eat before your stomach bursts? So has Mary Roach); or the pseudoscientific exploration of proving the existence of life after death; fascinating and strange are ever-present. Her books often embrace the anomalous, and she encourages her readers to do the same: I myself once attended an exhibit on psychic photography—also known as spirit photography, or photos that allegedly capture ghosts or other spiritual energies—at MoMA because Roach was there signing copies of her book Spook. Ectoplasm was never so riveting.

Stiff was published in 2003 when Roach was 44. One might conjecture that a book exploring what to do with your body after you die was written to cope with the awareness of mortality that accompanies a typically timed midlife crisis. But in this case, you can chalk it up to Roach’s unyielding curiosity and some pressure from her colleagues at The Grotto, a San Francisco-based writers’ collective of which Roach was a member until 2005. Roach, then a freelance writer for publications such as National Geographic, Discover Magazine, and Vogue, was challenged to seek a book deal by her fellow writers.

As you might imagine, a book about such a sensitive subject—handled with Roach’s sense of humor—drew mixed reviews. British crime writer Michael Dibdin noted in The Guardian that he found it “unsettling:”

Roach writes for Salon and Wired, and it shows: excellent first-hand reportage and meticulous documentation, but also a mass of educational factoids gleaned from the internet and secondary sources, plus (worst of all) endless failed attempts to lighten things up a little with facetious humour of the Bryson variety. Few things are more depressing than death, but this is one.

Treating death without proper reverence surely offends many; however, for some reviewers, Roach’s approach was refreshing: Elisa Visher, writing for Yale Scientific, pointed to the book’s extreme accessibility and its ability to demystify a subject that scares the bejeezus out of most of us, arguing that, ultimately, “Roach seems to have written a quasi-religious argument based upon science, history, and rationale about the status of the corpse after death.”

Quasi-religious? Perhaps. But it’s the dichotomy between the imagined afterlife and the reality of what actually happens to the body post-death that makes Stiff compelling and original. Roach eschews the mysticism of organized religion and the romantic notions of heaven, and instead manages to take a practical and funny look at dying. Take, for instance, Roach’s chapter on the use of cadavers to test vehicular injuries:

UM 006 is dressed this evening in a Smurf-blue leotard and matching tights. Beneath the tights he wears a diaper, for leakage. The neckline of his leotard is wide and scooped, like a dancer’s. Ruhan [the laboratory “cadaver man”] confirms that the cadaver leotards are purchased from a dancer’s supply house. ‘They would be disgusted if they knew!’ To ensure anonymity, the dead man’s face is masked by a snug-fitting white cotton hood. He looks like someone about to rob a bank, someone who meant to pull panty-hose over his head but got it wrong and used an athletic sock.

A page later, Roach remarks that the dead are much easier to be around than the dying, comparing the moments she spends with the test crash cadaver to the uncomfortable and emotionally charged moments she spent with her dying mother. Yes, Roach’s approach is at times irreverent, but in the end she has a great deal of respect for her subject matter.

Footnote (on open casket funerals and being able to tell the deceased has had organs harvested): “Only with tissue harvesting, which often includes leg and arm bones, does the body take on a slightly altered profile, and in this case PVC piping or dowels are inserted to normalize the form and make life easier for mortuary staff and others who need to move the otherwise somewhat noodle-ized body.”–Stiff

After Stiff, Roach wrote Spook (subtitled Science Tackles the Afterlife). It seems like a natural progression—explore the dead body, now investigate what happens to the person who used to inhabit the body. Roach covers the topic in much the same way—with the bit of cheekiness that you might expect from an atheist (in 2012 Roach received the “Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism” from the Harvard Secular Society on behalf of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and the American Humanist Association. Salmon Rushdie was named the winner in 2011). She confesses in a 2006 interview with Bookslut that she expected to get hate mail:

I actually was gearing up for a massive onslaught of not so much angry [e-mail], but e-mail from people who felt, a) that I’m an idiot, b) that their belief systems had been attacked in some one way—even though the tone of the book, I’m not trying to convince anyone either way but I’m just trying to figure it out for myself.

Figuring it out for herself meant traveling to India to spend a week in the field with Kirti S. Rawat, director of the International Centre for Survival and Reincarnation Researchers; investigating scientific attempts to weigh the soul; and taking a “Fundamentals of Mediumship” course at Arthur Findlay College in England. In Spook, she presents the evidence, such as it is, about whether the afterlife exists and can be measured, then argues the semantics.

Perhaps I’m confusing knowledge with belief. When I say I believe something, I mean I know it. But maybe belief is more subtle. A leaning, not a knowing. Is it possible to believe without knowing? . . . The debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with.

Bonk, Roach’s third book, was less controversial—subtitled The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, it explores sexual physiology in the most entertaining of ways.  In a review of Gulp in the New Yorker Roach was described as “the funniest science writer in the country,” but after Bonk, you could also call her the most dedicated: Roach volunteered herself and her intrepid husband to be the subjects of a real-time image scan of human sexual intercourse.

The big take-away from Bonk is that scientific research on sex—on anything—is driven by the possibility of corporate pharmaceutical gains. In an interview with SFGate, Roach says,

Funding is the big issue, always . . . [S]o much of sex research has to do with women and sexual desire, looking for pharmaceutical solutions. There are dozens and dozens of studies on that. . . . I asked the researcher [who was studying the therapeutic value of a vibrating device], “What if you just told the women to masturbate?” . . . She said, “Well, can you imagine getting funding for a study that says masturbation is good for your sexual health? Look what happened to (former Surgeon General) Joycelyn Elders.”

Roach’s fourth book steps away from sensitive topics of the human body (and soul), although the results are no less funny. Packing For Mars examines not just the science of space toilets and shuttle construction, but also the rigors of astronaut training. Many of us grew up during a time when manned space missions either hadn’t yet happened or were relatively new, and there’s a fascination that transcends everything, even though you don’t quite understand why. Roach, however, thinks she may have figured it out:

Early in my research, I came across a moment—forty minutes into the eighty-eighth hour of Gemini VII—which, for me, sums up the astronaut experience and why it fascinates me. Astronaut Jim Lovell is telling Mission Control about an image he has captured on film—“a beautiful shot of a full Moon against the black sky and the strato formations of the clouds of the earth below,” reads the mission transcript. After a momentary silence, Lovell’s crewmate Frank Borman presses the TALK button. “Borman’s dumping urine. Urine [in] approximately one minute.”

Just as in Bonk, Roach gets personally involved with her research in Packing for Mars—by drinking treated urine (a way of generating a potable water source in space) and experiencing brief weightlessness on a parabolic flight.

Roach’s most recent book is Gulp, her fifth, published this year. Perhaps less controversial than her early forays into death and the afterlife, it is no less fascinating. Gulp explores the mysteries of the body as it takes in, processes, and expels food, along with related, er, processes. As the Boston Globe notes, “[I]t’s hard not to succumb to the childlike amusements of bathroom humor.” There’s plenty to go around.

With chapters on the alimentary canal as criminal accomplice, the science of eating oneself to death, and several chapters relating to flatulence, it’s also hard not to be captivated, and, yes, slightly grossed out. The Washington Post’s reviewer hit on why Roach is so successful as a science writer for the masses: “You . . . won’t be forced to wade through long introductory sections explaining basic science, a trap that writers of a more scholarly bent often fall into when they write about their area of expertise for a general audience.” Perhaps because Roach is not an academic, exploring science as a lay person herself (she has a bachelor’s of psychology but not a graduate degree), she’s able to find a way to get her point across without seeming superior to her audience in any way.

Roach notes in a 2013 interview for The Verge that her lack of post-graduate credentials, however, presents challenges:

I’m always on thin ice with getting stuff straight. Even if I have the basics, or all the little pieces of a story, I’m always at risk of missing some big part or misstating some important detail. When I’m done with a book, I always give it to someone with expertise in the topic and tell them to flag all of my stupid mistakes.

She takes after one of her role models in this way—well-known travel, language, and science writer Bill Bryson has a Bachelor’s degree in international relations. Also like Bryson, Roach’s early career as a journalist gives her solid footing for investigating a wide range of interests . . . whether that’s the particulars of prisoners smuggling contraband in their bums (Gulp) or how a dildo-cam works (Bonk).

Footnote (to the discussion of the boundary between self and non-self in Gulp): “[T]he traditional purification ritual for the Brahmin polluted by crow feces is ‘a thousand and one baths.’ This has been rendered less onerous by the invention of the showerhead and the crafty religious loophole. ‘The water coming through each hole counts as a separate bath.’

While Mary Roach doesn’t like to drop hints about her work-in-progress, her fans—and I count myself among them—enjoy speculating. Given that Stiff and Spook seem to be almost companion books, one wonders if she might be elbows-deep in research that is quasi-comrade to Packing for Mars, Gulp, or Bonk.  All of Roach’s work is tied together in some respect, one topic growing out of another—that Roach would write about the alimentary canal in Gulp, for example, is no surprise, considering how interested she was in the eating and bathroom habits of astronauts (Packing for Mars). What could possibly be next for Mary Roach? Perhaps the world of competitive eating or adventure eating? Who knows? Whatever the case, we can be assured of a fascinating read . . . and a huge array of entertaining footnotes.

Bloom Post End

Nicole Wolverton is a freelance writer and editor from Philadelphia and serves as Editorial Assistant to Bloom. Her first novel, The Trajectory of Dreams, was published in March 2013 (Bitingduck Press); her short fiction has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, Penduline, and The Molotov Cocktail, among others. She is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Farm to Philly, and can also be found at

Homepagephoto credit: SOMBILON ART, MEDIA and PHOTOGRAPHY via photopin cc

Other features by Nicole Wolverton: Bee Ridgway: Finding The River

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