I love science – I studied biology in college, and while I wasn’t as great at the hard sciences (as opposed to the life sciences) like Chemistry and Physics, this was mostly because I was in required introductory courses that were not about topics that were relevant to my major, and also didn’t get into the interesting applications of all the science and formulas we were learning. Even my introductory biology classes had a tendency to be mind numbing, but once we got into more field-focused classes – conservation biology, biomechanics, molecular biology – things started to open up. I had aha! moments. Because the application of basic science in the world is way more interesting (at least to me) than the rote memorization that is so often required.
This is why I also love Mary Roach. She’s not a scientist, but a journalist who turned her attention many years ago to writing popular science. She’s had a series of books out that explore the “curious science” of various things in life. There are two so far I have not read: “Bonk” is a book about sex and “Spook” is about the afterlife. I’ve read “Stiff” (about cadavers) and seen her speak about “Gulp” before I read about the alimentary canal (from in to out). I come away from the books feeling smarter. She’s even coming out with a new book this year called “Grunt” about war, and will be in DC soon.
But my friend B turned me on to Ms. Roach a few years ago when she wrote this book – “Packing for Mars”. He had read it and said it was awesome, and I would like it. Then a few years later she wrote “Gulp”, came to Politics and Prose, and we saw her together. I purchased the Kindle edition of PfM a year or two ago when it was on sale, and because I’m terrible at reading a physical book – be it paper or kindle – it took forever to start reading it. And then I started it last fall…and lost track of it somewhere along the way. All of this makes the book sound terrible, when in fact, it’s not the book that is bad, but me. I need to be better about reading the kindle books that I buy, and I need to actually finish them after I start them instead of letting books languish at “63% done” for months.
So – all that out of the way, what’s the book about? It’s the popular science of space travel. What are all the things that they had to figure out to get humans into space, and staying there for more than a day or so? Roach discusses all the fun things like how they eat and the development of space food (for a long time, there was research into dense food cubes), the animals that were involved in early space flight testing (RIP Ham and Enos…among others), and most amusingly – defecation. That’s right, Mary Roach spends a lot of time talking about pooping in space, though this ties in nicely to her next book “Gulp” and I’m pretty sure when we saw her speak she talked about the connection between the two.
This is a fast read when you get going, and I loved learning about all the things about space flight that they don’t want to tell people. Much of what Roach likes to dive into is the things that will not appear in a NASA press release. Or maybe they do, but the language is so coded that you can’t tell what they’re trying to announce. And while it’s highly entertaining, you feel like you’re learning a lot. It may be a popular science book, but it’s still science, and she talks to some amazing people. If you, like many of us, are interested in space travel, or maybe you just saw The Martian and are wondering about how that all could work, I would definitely recommend this book. And then moving on to another of her books and getting to laugh and learn at the same time.
Details: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach, published 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company