BOOK REVIEW: The Curious Journeys of Mary Roach

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Have you ever wondered just what happened to Great Aunt Sadie’s spleen after she donated her body to science, or how a long-gone loved one’s ectoplasm diffuses through a spiritualist, or who first championed the clitoris? Then Mary Roach is the popular science author for you, and many others.

Roach’s first book, “Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” became a New York Times bestseller. Her second, “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” also became a bestseller. As did her third book, “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.” And now, “Packing for Mars: the Curious Science of Life in the Void,” the most recent of Roach’s study of science through humor, is well on its way.

Her success might be because reading about science is a madly popular pastime in the United States. Or it could be because Roach is a really funny gal. Laugh out loud, “Honey, you’ve got to hear this” hilarious. Indeed, her sense of humor is what makes Roach such a gift to the science-disinclined, -impaired or otherwise -disinterested — her sense of humor, along with an apparent inclination to obsess on the research inherent in her pursuits. Roach digs in and wallows through scientific esoterica to bring us the cold, hard facts of her subjects in the most entertaining ways.

For example, contrary to popular belief, barfing in one’s helmet during a spacewalk is not likely to asphyxiate you, due to the “air channels directing flow down over the face at 6 cubic feet per minute, so the vomit would be blown down away from the face and into the body of the suit. Disgusting, yes. Fatal, no.” Spacewalkers just have to contend with the “vision-obstructing visor splatter.”

An important bit of space travel trivia!

The enthusiasm that Roach brings to her subjects makes you wonder what actually draws her to them: the many uses of dead human bodies, the sometimes daffy sometimes dastardly research of human sexuality, the availability of Internet access in the afterlife. Just what drew her to space exploration? Was it the beauty of natural space, the “sun-illuminated flurry of flash-frozen waste-water droplets”?

As Roach writes, it “was not the heroics and adventure stories, but the very human and sometimes absurd struggles behind them. … Space doesn’t just encompass the sublime and the ridiculous. It erases the line between.” As her eagerness to test a zero-gravity toilet attests — if only her colon would have performed on NASA’s minute-by-minute schedule.

In “Packing for Mars,” Roach showers us with riches of spacey information. She busts the moon-landing hoax myth, explains how origami helps weed out unacceptable Japanese astronaut wannabes, and answers the ever-nagging question of meteoroid, meteorite or meteor:

“A meteoroid is a bit of debris, usually planetary, hurdling through the solar system. If it’s bigger than a boulder, then it’s an asteroid. If any part of a meteoroid makes it to Earth intact … then it’s a meteorite. A meteoroid’s visible path through the atmosphere is a meteor. An astronaut struck by a meteoroid is a goner. A meteoroid the size of a tomato seed can pierce a spacesuit.”

Obviously, Roach’s work does not have the sense of profound wonderment of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” or the brilliance of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” What her work does have is an exceptionally accessible voice that invites you to partake of science you would not likely have the time, the wherewithal or the persistence — or the stomach — to dig up on your own. (Check out the “popcorning feces” discussion in Chapter 14, although you’ll find scatological minutia popping up throughout the book!)

What Mary Roach does is perceptively and cleverly deliver the science of experts to the common folk — the taxpayers who are, in most cases, funding it. And this makes her work well worth reading. “Packing for Mars,” like her first three books, is a wonderfully entertaining, wildly vicarious exploration of places and things you otherwise would never get to see.

Crossposted at the North County Times.