Mary Roach and Curious Science

There’s a book coming out just this month that I’m pretty excited to read. It’s written by Mary Roach, author of Packing for Mars, Stiff, Spook, Gulp and Bonk. Her latest in a string of monosyllabic titles, (which do come with lengthy academic subtitles I’ve excluded for brevity,) is Grunt, subtitled, The Curious Science of Humans at War.

My mother managed to nab an early copy of this book at BookCon, so you think I’d have gotten a chance to read it by now, but she’s held onto it pretty tightly. We both have our own tightly guarded hoard of books to read, and plenty of reasons thinning that pile is taking us a good long while. So I can’t judge her too harshly. I’ll be waiting a bit for this one, but based on Roach’s past work I can highly recommend her for any and all curious minds.

In each of her books, Roach picks a single topic and explores the science behind it in depth, with a quirky sense of humor and curiosity. She’s explored the science behind space travel, sex, food, and death, those essential pillars of the human existence. Now she’s adding war to her collection. The science of war goes well beyond blowing stuff with the biggest booms and the biggest guns possible. There’s everything from the expected day to day stuff, like fighting exhaustion, hearing loss, medical matters, etc, all the way up to the more bizarre and unusual stuff, like dangerous shrimp and shark attacks.

This is standard coverage for all Roach’s topics. She picks a broad enough subject and covers them top to bottom, piece by piece, one specialized chapter at a time, and she answers the questions you really want the answers to. A while ago, I read her book on what it would take to send a manned mission to Mars, Packing For Mars, and found she went into far more depth on how astronauts go to the bathroom than I could ever my science teachers to, with pictures and everything. I can’t say that part made me want to be an astronaut very much, but it was an itch in my brain that has finally been scratched. No thanks to you, 5th grade science teacher. Pluto isn’t even a planet anymore! Everything you taught me is useless!

You could call this sort of writing pop-science lit. The critics do. That’s “pop-science” as in made for popular consumption of the public. To me that always seems a derogatory term, like they’re watering down “real” science so the dunderheads of the general public might be able to swallow it. That’s not how Mary Roach’s books read.

They read like a woman’s found a subject that fascinates her, a subject she usually knows next to nothing about, but one about which she’s vowed to learn everything. She also promises to bring back all these answers from professional sources, interviewing any and every oddball scientist and expert in the field to find the answers that will scratch the itch in your brain. Some of these answers you might not have even known you wanted or needed, but by the time Roach is done you’ll be very glad she gave them to you.

This sort of experience makes me glad to pick up any book by Mary Roach, no matter the topic. I can’t say I’ve been very interested in military science or history, but I know Roach well and am still very eager to dive into her latest title. If you haven’t read her books before, I recommend you do the same with any of her works.


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