Science Made Fun by Mary Roach

Mary Roach

Mary Roach, sans plastic rectum and anus

One of the great things about living in Syracuse is the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series. A fundraiser for the Friends of the Central Library, the series brings in six authors a year, spaced throughout the fall and spring, to give lectures. I attended my first one last year, when Neil Gaiman came to town. Judging from the size of the crowd, I can safely guess that it was a sellout. This year’s lineup featured Erik Larson, Scott Simon, Mark Bittman, Daniel Handler, and Julia Alvarez. And science writer Mary Roach.

I confess, I was unfamiliar with Mary Roach’s work before I attended her lecture here in April. This is something I have corrected since then. I bought the audiobook of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex from Audible, downloaded the audiobook of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers from the library, and currently have her latest book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal on loan in print from the library.

Her books are educational, entertaining, and just downright funny. If any of you have read or listened to my book Purgatory, you know that I have a special place in my heart for humor. Mary Roach delivers in spades. Take this passage from Gulp, for example. It’s from the chapter on chewing food:

The study of oral processing is not just about teeth. It’s about the entire “oral device”: teeth, tongue, lips, cheeks, saliva, all working together toward a singular unpicturesque goal: bolus formation. The word bolus has many applications, but we are speaking of this one: a mass of chewed, saliva-moistened food particles. Food that is in – as one researcher put it, sounding like a license plate – “the swallowable state.” [Footnote: I nominate Rhode Island.]

Or this from the same book, in which she discusses the Biblical story of Johah being swallowed by a whale:

Would a man in a whale forestomach be crushed or merely tumbled? Is the force lethal or just uncomfortable? No one to my knowledge has measured the contraction strength of the sperm whale forestomach, but someone has measured gizzard squeeze. The work was done in the 1600s, to settle an argument between a pair of Italian experimenters, Giovanni Borelli and Antonio Vallisneri, over the main mechanism of digestion. Borelli claimed it was purely mechanical: that birds’ gizzards exerted a thousand pounds of force, and with that kind of grinding going on there was no call for chemical dissolution. “Vallisneri, on the contrary,” wrote author Stephen Paget in a 1906 chronicle of early animal experimentation, “having had occasion to open the stomach of an ostrich, had found there a fluid* which seemed to act on bodies immersed in it.” [Footnote: Vallisneri named the fluid aqua fortis – not to be confused with aquavit, a Scandinavian liquor with, sayeth the Internet, “a long and illustrious history as the first choice for … special occasions,” like holidays or the opening of an ostrich stomach.]

I love the little payoff in that last line. She lets us know that, despite her fascination with biology, she too finds opening an ostrich stomach to be a little weird. Still, she revels in the realm of the gross, venturing to bodily parts and functions that most of us have been told not to discuss in polite company. For her lecture in Syracuse, which was actually a conversation between her and a physician from Upstate University Hospital, she took the stage carrying a gift she had received during her tour of the hospital earlier that day. It seems the hospital has a 3D printer, and an admiring staff member printed for her a 3D replica of a cadaver’s rectum and anus. It was in plastic and colored a rather attractive shade of red. She declared her intention to place it on her desk as a pen and pencil holder.

If you haven’t read any of her books yet, or watched her TED Talk, I encourage you to check her out. You’ll laugh, and you’ll learn something. I know I have. And I haven’t even gotten to chapters 13 and 14 of Gulp, which concern “the intestinal arts”. [Footnote: Farting.]

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