How Mary Roach Unintentionally Became a Science Journalist and Wrote Six New York Times Bestsellers
Imagine reading a book about cadavers or your digestive system and laughing your butt off. Seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? Well, not if it's authored by Mary Roach, a well-known American writer who specializes in covering popular science topics with an impeccable sense of humor. Her work comes across like a clever standup routine performed by a professional comic with an unquenchable interest in how stuff works. It’s witty, it’s informative, and very, very blunt.
Born on March 20th, in 1959, Mary Roach grew up in New Hampshire. She attended Hanover High School and graduated with a B.A. in psychology from Wesleyan University in 1981. After that, she relocated to San Francisco, California, where she worked as a freelance copy editor. She didn’t intend to become a science writer, but producing press releases for the San Francisco Zoological Society, on topics like elephant wart surgery and such, slowly led her to it.
Years later, when she was interviewed by The Verge, she stated: "To be honest, it turned out that science stories were always, consistently, the most interesting stories I was assigned to cover. I didn't plan it like this, and I don't have a formal background in science, or any education in science journalism." Still, like any good writer, she asks questions that most of us are too afraid to voice, and she does whatever it takes to get the answers.
Her website features a short biography as well as a shorter biography, for those who are pressed for time (though the difference between the two is minimal). To sum up, she’s published six New York Times bestsellers and is currently preparing to release her seventh book, called FUZZ: When Nature Breaks the Law, this upcoming September. Over the years, she’s covered a lot of ground, publishing Stiff, Spook, Bonk, Gulp, Grunt, and Packing For Mars.
Though all of her work is thoroughly enjoyable, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013) are some of her most popular and celebrated books, and for good reason; “I get really excited about specific therapies, personalized therapies,” she said. Since these particular books cover life science, Roach gets to learn about these things up close.
To give you, our readers, a better sense of her writing, check out the summaries and excerpts from the three aforementioned works, and if you like what you see, make sure to check out more from Mary Roach.
Summary of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003)
For 2,000 years, cadavers -- some willingly, some unwittingly -- have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem.
Excerpt from the chapter "Life After Death"
“An eye cap is a simple ten-cent piece of plastic. It is slightly larger than a contact lens, less flexible, and considerably less comfortable. The plastic is repeatedly lanced through, so that small, sharp spurs stick up from its surface. The spurs work on the same principle as those steel spikes that threaten Severe Tire Damage on behalf of rental car companies: The eyelid will come down over an eye cap, but, once closed, will not easily open back up. Eye caps were invented by a mortician to help dead people keep their eyes shut. There have been times this morning when I wished that someone had outfitted me with a pair of eye caps. I've been standing around, eyelids up, in the basement embalming room of the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science.
Summary of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008)
The study of sexual physiology—what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better—has been going on for centuries, behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, Alfred Kinsey's attic, and, more recently, MRI centers, pig farms, and sex-toy R&D labs. I spent two years wheedling and conniving my way behind those doors to bring you the answers to the questions Dr. Ruth never asked. Is your penis three inches longer than you think? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Can a dead man get an erection? Why doesn't Viagra help women—or, for that matter, pandas?
Excerpt from the chapter "The Upsuck Chronicles: Does orgasm boost fertility, and what do pigs know about it?"
“Martin, Morten, and Thomas are in the break room, eating bread with jam and drinking coffee from a slim steel thermos. They are uncomfortable speaking in English, and I speak no Danish. We are dependent on Anne Marie Hedeboe, a visiting pig production researcher whose colleague Mads Thor Madsen drafted the Five-Point Stimulation Plan for sows. The mood in the room is a little starched. I called Morten Martin. I referred to the owner of the farm as "Boss Man," which in Danish means "snot." Unspoken questions hover in the air: Do you find it arousing to stimulate a sow? How often are young male farm workers caught getting fresh with the stock? For their part, the inseminators must be wondering why on earth I've come here.
“I could not adequately explain to them, but I will explain to you. Please don't worry. This chapter is not about pig sex. It is about female orgasm and whether it serves a purpose outside the realm of pleasure. What is accepted dogma in the pig community — that the uterine contractions caused by stimulation and/or orgasm draw in the sperm and boost the odds of conception — was for hundreds of years the subject of lively debate in medical circles. You don't hear much these days about uterine "upsuck" - or "insuck," as it was also known — and I'm wondering: Do the pigs know something we don't know?”
Summary of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013)
The alimentary canal — the much-maligned tube from mouth to rear — is as taboo, in its way, as the cadavers in Stiff, and as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. In Gulp we meet the scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks —or has the courage —to ask. How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Why doesn't the stomach digest itself? Can wine tasters really tell a $10 bottle from a $100 bottle? Why is crunchy food so appealing? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? We go on location to a pet food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. Like all of Roach's books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies.
Excerpt from the Introduction
“In 1968, on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, six young men undertook an irregular and unprecedented act. Despite the setting and the social climate of the day, it involved no civil disobedience or mind-altering substances. Given that it took place in the nutritional sciences department, I cannot even say with confidence that the participants wore bell-bottomed pants or sideburns of unusual scope. I know only the basic facts: the six men stepped inside a metabolic chamber and remained for two days, testing meals made from dead bacteria.
“This was the fevered dawn of space exploration; NASA had Mars on its mind. A spacecraft packed with all the food necessary for a two-year mission would be impracticably heavy to launch. Thus there was a push to develop menu items that could be ‘bioregenerated,’ that is to say, farmed on elements of the astronauts' waste. The title of the paper nicely sums the results: ‘Human Intolerance to Bacteria as Food.’ Leaving aside the vomiting and vertigo, the thirteen bowel movements in twelve hours from Subject H, one hopes the aesthetics alone would have tabled further research. Pale gray Aerobacter, served as a ‘slurry,’ was reported to be unpleasantly slimy. H. eutropha had a ‘halogen-like taste.’”