By Lauren Menke
Editor’s Note: This article is the winning submission to the Textbook Nova 2021 Scholarship.
It is a common scene: a student sits slumped over a science textbook, lulled to sleep by its dull writing. While the book may detail the marvels of the human body, space exploration, or the deep ocean, the colorless text fails to excite. Often, science books are boring, but science is not. Many popular science authors have attempted to revive science with mixed success. Enter author Mary Roach, ready to revive science writing with wit and humor. While textbooks are dry, her writing is an inviting oasis for science lovers and the general population. When I first read one of her books, I felt like I had struck gold; Roach makes science fun again.
Since my first page-turning experience, I have many of Roach’s books. Three I particularly enjoyed: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. In Gulp, Roach describes the digestive system, starting with the mouth. Along the way, she answers many questions that everyone wonders but no one dares to ask aloud. She tackles taboo topics bravely and envelops her delivery with humor. Her jokes are well-timed, and she steers clear of over-doing the humor. Instead, one-liners are carefully implanted among the fascinating facts. Also, it is evident that Roach does her homework; her lengthy bibliographies cite real research and experts. She proves that science does not have to be sensational to be entertaining.
Before the publication of Gulp, she advertised the book in a unique way. Like other authors, she made a television appearance (for Roach, this was the Daily Show with Jon Stewart) (1). Then, she went a step further. She had a book trailer crafted which featured bright colors, puppets, and, of course, her characteristic humor. Once again, she did not fail to step outside of the box of traditional authorship. In an interview with Standford Medicine, Roach was questioned about her unusual topic choices. She replied, “Everybody has a certain amount of where they’re both drawn to something and repelled by it. And I’ll find a way, as a writer, to take them by the hand and say, ‘OK, yeah, this is a little repellent, a little grotesque, but come with me.’” (2). As a reader, I am always willing to cling to Roach’s hand as she guides me through the scientific topics she has unearthed.
I believe that Roach can make any subject matter entertaining. Most people view death negatively and avoid discussing it. In contrast, Roach focusses on cadavers in Stiff. What could be a morid, depressing book is transformed by Roach’s approach. She brings details and dignity to her writing as she explains how cadavers benefit the living. Unlike many authors who sit back and record the details, Roach becomes involved in her writing process. She observed a cadaver lab in which a cosmetic surgeon demonstrated techniques to students. It is a sight that would cause many to faint, but Roach values the quality of her writing over her comfort level. This dedication to uncovering the full story draws me to Roach’s books again and again.
When I read Packing for Mars, I became more appreciative of Roach’s writing style. While space travel would not normally pique my interest, this book gave me a new appreciation for space studies. In attempting to land a man on the moon, humans learned a lot about themselves such as that we can swallow and digest food while upside down or in zero-gravity. Roach includes a hilarious history of early space missions which were lead by monkeys, not men. During the process of writing this book, Roach participated in a parabolic flight, so she could fully describe it to her readers. Her first-hand experience makes readers feel as if they are beside her, doing loop-de-loops in a jet plane. By the end of the book, she begins discussing areas of future study that just might convince someone to become an astronaut. As with every one of Roach’s books that I read, Packing for Mars left me laughing, admiring, and pondering.
I am not the only one to praise her work. She has published six New York Times bestsellers with a new book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, on the horizon (1). Furthermore, she has written for Wired, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and more (1). She even gave a TED talk with a snapshot of one of her books, and the video now ranks in the TED 20 Most-Watched List (1). However, she was not always making appearances at a national level. In fact, she began by working as a freelance editor before working part-time at the San Francisco Zoo (1). Eventually, she switched to writing science books and truly found her niche (1). By browsing her website, one can tell that Roach is not a typical author. When she is not writing, she enjoys “that late-night Animal Planet show about horrific animals such as the parasitic worm that attaches itself to fishes’ eyeballs but makes up for it by leading the fish around” (1). As I read Roach’s books, I feel a bit like the fish- I become sucked in on the first page and can hardly her books down. Fortunately, as I read, I am guided through a world in which science is wondrous. Like other readers, I giggle, gawk, and grasp new concepts in every chapter.
If the world had more authors like Mary Roach, we would no longer see sleepy students drooling over science textbooks. Alternatively, readers of all ages would leap towards the science section, ready to fill their minds with the wonders of the world. In contrast to other pop-sci books, Roach’s work finds a way to perfectly balance humor and facts. She takes risks in her writing process and in advertising for her books. Then, she breaks the boundaries of typical science writing on every page. Though I may have read some of her books read ago, her delivery ensures that the facts stick in my mind like a textbook never can. Her success is evident in her books’ rankings and her multiple appearances. Needless to say, Mary Roach is my favorite author and the favorite author of many.