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THE DIGESTIVE DETECTIVE: MARY ROACH
Human beings do a lot of things, but only some of these things are universal. We all eat, we all die, and the overwhelming majority of us have sex. Most of us don't give much thought to any of these, not on a scientific level. Obviously, foodie culture and the proliferation of restaurants, proves we think about eating quite a bit. While we sit, safely distanced, from the other patrons at our favorite eatery, we probably think about the menu. Then, we think about the flavors and aromas, and finally, we think about the price. How many of us think about the enzymes in our saliva that help start the digestion process? How often do we say, "Gee, I wonder what happens to that slice of cheese as it works its way through my small intestine?"
Eating is something we do every day if we're lucky, but hardly ever do we question how it all works. Mary Roach, on the other hand, wrote a whole book on the topic. It's called, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. If you don't think eating is a fascinating subject, I urge you to watch her brief interview with John Stewart (linked below). Roach appears to be ravenous in her curiosity, devouring information not just about our alimentary canals, but on a variety of other topics too. She's written Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.
Have you ever read a book that felt like you were reading your own thoughts? Where the cadence and rhythm of the words so closely matched your own way of thinking that you could swear the book was tailor-made for you? That's what happened to me when I read Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Mary Roach has no training as a scientist, but she's talked to a lot of people who do. In this book, she talks to them about life after death.
There's a man in India (probably a few) who has the job of investigating claims of reincarnation. The belief that loved ones can be born into a new body after they die is so prevalent in his society that families will often shower gifts on the person who holds the soul of the deceased. But, there are people who take advantage and scam families so they can reap these riches. Mary Roach interviewed the man responsible for sniffing out the imposters. If nothing else, it's a fascinating study in sociology.
Death is inescapable, even for someone who's really good at escaping; someone like Harry Houdini. He's well-known for his magic, but only slightly less well-known for his crusade to discredit spiritualists. These are the people who perform seances to contact the dead, occasionally producing ectoplasm as "evidence" of the presence of the supernatural. Roach covers these shenanigans too and discovers that "there's more of gravy than of grave" about them.
It's not as if Mary Roach has set out to prove there's no afterlife. On the contrary, she sets off on a journey with the reader to seek evidence of one. We travel with her along the timeline of mankind's search for a hereafter. Experiments over the ages have attempted, in their fashion, to discover the difference between our living bodies and our deceased ones. It's sometimes amusing, sometimes disturbing, but always entertaining.
The way Roach seems to approach each of her topics with an open mind is a refreshing change from the demands of persuasive media. It's as if she sits at her kitchen table over her bacon and eggs and thinks, "Hmm, I wonder…" and sets off to satisfy her curiosity. In the process, she gets to hunt through archives, travel to interview experts, and uncover the most bizarre, interesting bits of our everyday lives to bring back to us. It's clear she enjoys her quest. Her writing is permeated with a sense of wonder and a delightfully wicked sense of humor.
This is the second in my new series of science communication profiles. As an aspiring SciComm author, I think it's important to identify and highlight women who are outstanding in the field. College career advisors say to find someone who has the job you want and figure out how they got there. I think that's good advice for anyone. Our idols help motivate and inspire us, no matter what field they're in. I hope you enjoy reading about my idols and how they help shape our concepts of the world.
Read/watch/learn more here:
Mary Roach's Official Website
The Daily Show with John Stewart
10 Things You Didn't Know About Orgasm (TED Talks)
Harry Houdini vs. Spiritualism (Drunk History)
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