I’m not squeamish, but I’m not beating down any doors to join our students in the anatomy lab, either. That’s why I was so surprised, delighted and enlightened when I read Mary Roach’s 2004 book, Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. In addition to being highly informative (about things like the history of human dissection, the various options for body disposal, the world’s only facility dedicated to the study of human decay, and how the use of cadavers in car crashes has shaped automobile design), it’s oddly, gruesomely funny.
The endlessly curious Roach also has written books on topics including sex research, studies and beliefs about what happens to the human soul after death, and the science of life in space. She gave a TED talk titled, “Ten things you didn’t know about orgasm.” Now she’s explored more taboo topics in her latest book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.
In Gulp, Roach takes readers on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant and into a live stomach to observe it digesting food. She asks why crunchy food is so appealing, whether constipation killed Elvis and how much one can eat before one’s stomach bursts. She interviewed murderers who hide contraband like cellphones in their rectums in prison and underwent a sedation-free colonoscopy to see what her own insides look like.
Always informative as well as entertaining, Roach was interviewed during the April 6 episode of American Public Radio’s “The Splendid Table,” during which she described to host Lynne Rossetto Kasper the “superpowers” of saliva, our second set of nostrils, and how we use our ears and nose to taste food. She explains, among other things, why it’s a good idea to lick one’s wounds – literally – or spit the next time you stain your shirt.
Roach is my kind of science journalist. In a recent interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, she said about Gulp, “It has to do with the human body. It’s bizarre. It’s a very strange place, the human body. It’s an alien planet that I love to come back to again and again, and the gastrointestinal tract and the mouth are really fascinatingly bizarre and kind of marvelous.”