Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Gulp by Mary Roach

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Mary Roach is a science writer with an eye for the bizarre and humorous. She has a peculiar and dry sense of humor in her writing, and she will try just about anything. 

Gulp is a book about the alimentary canal, from the mouth to the anus, and everything in between. Roach follows whatever weird rabbit trains she wishes in exploring, well, whatever interests her. She weaves the science into the book, and she definitely does a bunch of research. In fact, the number of primary sources she slogs through to get the fun stories is pretty astounding. Much of the original materials seem less than thrilling until she finds a compelling story and a deadpan quote or two that is bursting with “unintentional comedy factor.”

Just a quick scan through the chapters reveals that this book touches on the role of smell in taste, the art and science of pet food, the bizarre fad for extreme chewing of food (the gluten free fad of its day), whether food swallowed alive can eat its way out, extreme eating, rectal smuggling, flammable flatulence, theories as to the cause of Elvis’ death, the similarity of 19th century enema obsession and modern "cleanse" fads, and fecal transplants.

No, this book is probably not for the faint of stomach. For my wife, the ICU nurse, it was pretty mild. I am not easily grossed out, so we make a good match for gallows or bodily fluid humor. Thus, we both found this book to be hilarious.

I would also note that Roach is highly irreverent. About everything. Sacred cows will be slaughtered, stuffed, and mounted. And do not expect that taboos will be observed. I find this to be a great attraction of the book, of course. A very dry sense of humor goes down well.

I read a lot of this book in the evenings while camping, which doesn’t lend itself to taking down notes about stuff to quote. However, there are a few that are too good to forget.

First, as a perfect example of the sense of humor displayed, Roach footnotes a reference to the “primordial soup” with the comment, “Not a Campbell’s product.”

Or, after several instances of really stupid acronyms (technically backroyms, but that distinction only matters to language nerds), she coins one of her own.

“[A]n example of PLEASE - Pretty Lame Excuse for an Acronym, Scientists and Experimenters.”

There is much more, of course, but to detail the contents of the book would be to spoil the delightful writing.

This book is merely the latest by the author. I previously read Bonk, about the intersection of sex and science. (Also hilarious and irreverent. It predates my blog, however, so I never did a review.) Other books include Stiff, about cadavers, and Packing for Mars, about the bizarre elements of space travel. Both of these sound interesting as well.

It should be obvious that Mary Roach won’t appeal to everyone, but for those with a love of the peculiar and a slow gag reflex, her books will be enjoyable.

Roach has numerous videos online, including an extended session with Adam Savage of Mythbusters (one of my favorite shows), a TED talk, and an interview with Jon Stewart regarding this very book.

Here is her introduction to Gulp.


Note on Pop Science:

I’m not a science major, although I consider myself fairly well educated in that area - for an amateur. So much of science these days requires a strong mathematics background to even understand. I do my best to continue to learn, and keep up with new developments, but I admit that I couldn’t hold my own in an argument with an expert in any particular field.

All that to say that I do enjoy pop science. Some other books I have enjoyed are listed below:

By Sam Kean:

By Malcolm Gladwell (pop sociology):


All About Electricity (my very favorite book as a kid)

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