Sometimes the best experts on any given subject are not what people imagine.
Not all researches adorn themselves in white lab coats and speak in code. They don't necessarily hold PhDs in the topics they cover. They maybe haven't spent their entire lives conducting research on, say, prehistoric mating practices of arachnids. Some of these DIY experts are simply thrown into their fields of expertise by accident. Most have rare and insatiable curiosities for the odd or unexplored. One such expert in the field of science writing is award-winning science author, Mary Roach.
“At some point an editor at Discover Magazine called me—that was back when people still called people. I thought it was just another interesting assignment so I said 'yes',” says Roach from her office in Oakland, CA. “The little that I did there fell into the science category, ‘science lite’, you might say. I kind of stuck to that area. It was not a conscious decision, like so many things in my career.”
Aside from Roach's 'science lite' articles for Discover Magazine and others at Outside, National Geographic, New Scientist, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine, Roach also wrote a science-meets-humor column at Salon.com, in which she shed light on semi-taboo topics like the Museum of Menstruation, paruretics (people who have trouble urinating in the presence of others), and even the science behind bad breath and bowling with amputees.
Still actively contributing her humorous and hands-on stories to magazines, Roach is probably best known for her series of oddball science books; Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void and her most recent, my personal favorite, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, which will be available this April.
“The subtitle is Adventures On The Alimentary Canal or more fun and gross shenanigans with the human body,” Laughs Roach. “There's obviously a lot of interest in food and eating. It’s reflected a lot in books about food and cooking and I just felt that nobody really pays attention to the equipment. And the people who study it are quirky and interesting. It’s, again, kind of unusual things that you wouldn't really think about.”
And what exactly does she mean when she refers to the “kind of unusual things that you wouldn't really think about” when it comes to our bodies and their complex but fascinating digestive processes?
“It covers everything between the lips and the...asshole. Anything in there is game,” she adds. “I can't believe I hadn't done this book before, it’s like 'the ultimate Mary Roach,' pull out all of the stops!”
Gulp begins with an explanation of the sense of smell and how the olfactory process leads people to either love or abhor the tastes of certain foods. For the opening chapter, Roach embarks on another of her infamous hands-on studies, through a relatively mild blind taste-test of olive oils. Soon after, however, readers will find themselves squirming as Roach explores cultural views in regards to eating animal organs like brains, livers and even eyeballs. Only the beginning of a truly fascinating look at eating and everything that comes along with it as we digest (or in some unfortunate cases, fail to digest). Gulp covers topics like parasites, flammable intestinal gas, the carrying capacity of the human stomach, constipation and even the practice of using various parts of the digestive tract for smuggling drugs and other objects. This and much, much more is highlighted and uh, deeply explored in this whopper of a book.
Though graphic and hilarious details of Roach herself penetrating the side of a fistulated cow with her arm may be a bit too much for many readers to stomach (a fistulated cow, in layman's terms, is a cow with holes cut in its side for agriculture students to study the complex digestive process of the multi-stomached bovines), each and every revealing, albeit gross topic, covered in Gulp seem like a trip to the ice-cream parlor compared to the research she embarked on for her debut book, Stiff.
“Like anything you get used to it. And because all of the bodies in Stiff were anonymous and in a laboratory setting—an educational setting—it was very different than seeing… someone who had been in a car crash or someone you knew. Any kind of reaction you might have, it just became a matter of adjusting to it,” says Roach. “You know, you talk to people who are medical students or people who have to confront cadavers and there is this fear of the unknown. They think they are going to be really disturbed for a long, long time—they are usually surprised but how quickly it just becomes part of the job. It’s completely different than it being the body of someone who is the victim of a violent injury or accident or shooting. Its so much the context when you see a body.”
For some readers, the freakiest part of Stiff, or anything else she's written—was when Roach visited a lab full of aspiring cosmetic surgeons practicing surgical procedures on human heads.
“It was weird but your brain sort of copes in weird ways. My brain sort of chose to view it as people making Halloween masks,” laughs Roach. “Like people working on molds for really gruesome Halloween masks—that's what they're doing here! Nothing too gross here!”
Unlike Stiff (and with a few minor exceptions of how the digestive tract has and can kill humans and animals in multifaceted ways), most of the research in Gulp involved living people—and that unfortunate fistulated cow. This will either lend to the book being more or less accessible and easily digestible, if you will, than her previous work. This all depends, of course, on the reader's level of interest in things like bodily fluids, regurgitation, eating contests, anal smuggling, digestive bacteria and the various other insights Roach offers. Regardless of the ‘yuck factor’, Roach again delivers her researched topics not in order to convince anyone of anything. There are no hard-hitting facts or testimonies used to sway readers into one theory or another. She simply tells the stories as she sees, feels, smells and tastes them in order to engage us in the art of wondering
How will Roach possibly out-gross readers after Gulp?
“I have one idea that may or may not be logistically possible so I am not exactly sure what will come next. I am open to ideas. If people have ideas, they can throw them my way!”
Whatever comes next, readers should be prepared. It’s sure to be a complete sensory overload in the best and most incredible Mary Roach of ways.
is a displaced social worker, mother, world traveler and activist turned writer and wannabe Anthropologist. Burlison is a staff writer at The Pacific Sun in Marin County, CA, a columnist for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and a book reviewer for the The Los Angeles Review. She also leads writing workshops and co-edits a zine at Petals and Bones, and is currently working on her first book.