First, dead bodies. Then, the human soul. Most recently, sex.
Those are the topics on which American author and columnist Mary Roach has written. Hilariously so, I should add. I wonder what she’ll write about next.
She began her career as a freelance writer while working a “half-time” (as her bio states; I wonder if that means “part-time?”) public relations gig at the San Francisco Zoological Society. This included writing press releases addressing peculiar issues such as elephant wart removal surgery and cheetah-sucking fleas. Now what writer wouldn’t want that kind of experience?
This paved the way for her research-driven style, though she admits, “I don’t have a science degree and must fake my way through interviews with experts I can’t understand.” Awesome.
A skeptical, evidence-driven journalist at heart, she researches her topics thoroughly, to the point of tracking down and contacting the authors of the scientific studies she reads. Sometimes, if possible, she’ll attempt to be a subject in these studies herself, so she can write about the experience first-hand.
Roach’s approach distills complex topics with a healthy dose of skepticism and a hearty dollop of humor. I caught myself laughing out loud a few times while reading her books. Few books do that to me.
Few also make me queasy enough to lose my appetite, as her book on cadavers did. I think I lost a few pounds while reading Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Call me a wuss, but visualizing the liquefication of human organs from a rotting corpse into the ground, such that the resulting dirt turns to putrid mud, has a way of making my mashed potatoes and gravy less appetizing.
Just to share the horrific hilarity, let me quote a few passages. Here’s one from Stiff:
Bloat is most noticeable in the abdomen, [adjunct research professor of forensic anthropology at University of Tennessee] Arpad [Vass] is saying, where the largest numbers of bacteria are, but it happens in other bacterial hot spots, most notably the mouth and genitalia. “In the male, the penis and especially the testicles can become very large.”
“Like how large?” (Forgive me.)
“I don’t know. Large.”
“Softball large? Watermelon large?”
“Okay, softball.” Arpad Vass is a man with infinite reserves of patience, but we are scraping the bottom of the tank.
Now here’s one from Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. It would seem that Roach has a fascination for death. While Stiff covers what happens to the body upon death, Spook covers the mind/soul/consciousness.
Theorists like [Duke University School of Medicine professor Gerry] Nahum think of the consciousness as information content. And information, to a quantum physicist anyway, has an accepted energy equivalent. And thus a (very very very light) weight. “The change in the heat that has to be liberated per bit of information lost is about three times ten to the minus-twenty-one joules,” Nahum says.
I must have made some sort of face. “I’m making this as simple as I can,” Nahum says. When you’re as brainy as Gerry Nahum is, you lose sight of just how ignorant the rest of us are. Earlier on in our talk, he prefaced the line, “Quite a few people look at microtubules as what can be considered almost like an abacus for molecular calculation at a subcellular level” with the phrase “As I’m sure you’re aware.”
Here’s an excerpt from her latest book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, which is about the history of the scientific study of sex, as I’m sure you’re aware.
The human vagina is accustomed to visitors. Even the language of anatomy imbues the organ with an innlike hospitality, the entrance to the structure being named the “vaginal vestibule.” Take off your coat and stay awhile. Gynecologist Robert Latou Dickinson, circa 1910, documented its wondrously accommodating nature, using his fingers as a measuring tool. The volume of the virgin vagina is “one finger”; the married woman rates “two full fingers.” Once babies start coming, it’s “three fingers” and up, all the way to Subject No. 163, whose vestibule (and parlor) appear in a pen-and-ink rendering in Dickinson’s Atlas of Human Sex Anatomy with the doctor’s entire hand submerged.
Scientific, yet hilarious. No doubt, readers yearning for more substantial fare will be turned off by Roach’s light-hearted tone, but that’s why I love it. Her books are learning made fun.
So what will she write about next?
First, she wrote about death and the body. Then she followed it up with death and the mind/soul/consciousness, which seemed the perfect sequel. It was as if some of her notes from Stiff begged for further examination. When she did, Spook was born.
With Bonk, she changed direction. After such macabre topics, I don’t blame her. I can imagine her husband saying, “You’ve changed, Mary. Your libido has totally gone kaput since all that research about the dead.” So to spice things up, she decided to research sex. ‘Tis only fair.
Here’s what I think her next book might be about:
- The science of love
- Her fourth book could continue with the sex theme and cover what sometimes comes first: the science of love and romance. A lot of chemical reactions and hormones course through your mind when in the throes of love. Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, has even made a name for herself by doing a lot of research in this field.
- The science of relationships
- Another angle could be the study of human relationships. How and why did we evolve to be social beings? How and why did the US phenomenon of the nuclear family arise, and is it good for us?
- The science of child-rearing
- I’m guessing there have been studies to determine the most effective parenting techniques. For my parents, it was with swift physical discipline. Nowadays, it is less so. Is that good, bad, or just different?
- The science of eating
- She could also cover another bodily function: consuming food. It could include research on nutrition, chemically-engineered produce, farm-raised livestock, processed foods, fast food, junk food, and all that lovely stuff. The topic has been done many times over though, so she might need a new angle.
- The history of food
- Sort of related to the previous point, but a little different. I would love to know who first looked at a cow’s udder and said, “I’m going to drink whatever comes out of that.” How did we come to eat the foods we do? Should we really be vegetarians? Why do I enjoy hot dogs so much, even when I know they are made of lips and assholes?
- The history of obesity
- I once heard that the rise of obesity in the US coincided with the introduction of artificial sweeteners and, possibly, soda and fast food. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, but it would be interesting to hear her take on this.
- The science of alcohol
- In keeping with Roach’s theme of human-related topics, this could cover how alcohol came about. How was it discovered? How did every civilization come up with some form of alcoholic beverage? Are we just beings that innately crave being buzzed? And what’s the evolutionary reason why Asians turn red when drinking it?
- The science of drugs
- Similar to the previous one, but, you know, about drugs. Or both topics could be covered in one book.
- The science of human waste removal
- After all these topics on what we consume, how about what we void? Human waste removal has come a long way. From throwing it out your window to aqueducts to automated sewage systems to electronic heated toilets in Japan. Fascinating stuff here.
- The science of evolution
- I don’t mean starting from fish to reptiles to mammals to hairless apes. But it would be interesting to hear about the latest findings and research history on how scientists concluded that early humans came from Africa and settled throughout the rest of the world. Even the rise of racial differences could be interesting. Or the theory that humans evolved from aquatic apes.
I’m sure if I sat here, I could think of many more. Roach, I’m sure, has a long list already. Or maybe she needs an idea, in which case, I’d like to humbly make these suggestions. All I ask is an autographed copy of the book. Hehe.
Whatever the case, I’m eager for her next book. I will definitely buy it, as I’m sure you’re aware.