Mary Roach makes science simple, and funny
Imagine walking into a room full of severed heads placed on roasting pans. The thought is obviously odd and (probably)repulsive, but for some, like science author Mary Roach, it comes with the territory. The scenario comes from the opening chapter of her 2003 breakthrough bestseller, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Since then, Roach has written five more books (with another in the works), primarily focused on science surrounding the human body in various predicaments: digesting food, sexually aroused, traveling in space or simply deceased.
Roach hadn’t intended to become a science journalist. She graduated in 1981 from Wesleyan University with a degree in psychology.
“I had no background in journalism,” she said during a recent phone interview. “I didn’t take classes, and I didn’t even write for the Wesleyan newspaper.”
Roach later relocated to San Francisco, where she turned to writing copy for press releases and catalogues, along with freelance pieces for Image Magazine. She also began working with a magazine called Hippocrates (later known as In Health, then Health).
“[Hippocrates] had to do with the human body and medicine,” Roach said. “I was a contributing editor there and really enjoyed all those stories. It was really through my work with that magazine that got me headed off in that direction.”
The path led Roach to contributing to outlets like National Geographic, Salon, Wired, Reader’s Digest, and The New York Times Magazine. Part of the allure of Roach’s writing, particularly in her books, is her palpable curiosity. Roach poses odd questions like how a toilet in space might work, and she finds the answer. Her topics might seem out of the ordinary, but they almost always involve digging deep into some basic human experience, which makes them relatable.
“It’s a very accessible kind of science because everybody has a body, is a body,” Roach said. “It’s easy to get fascinated by that as a layperson, which isn’t true necessarily of genetics or neuroscience where you really do need some background to understand.”
Not only does Roach make science accessible, she also makes it funny. She has a talent for describing terms like “gloving” (a forensics term for a cadaver’s skin slipping off the hand), and making it as light and understandable as any water-cooler talk.
“A lot of science isn’t naturally funny, and I tend to gravitate toward things that lend themselves toward humor,” Roach said.
While a majority of Roach’s work has a comedic touch, there are the chapters that simply have no room for laughs. Roach’s most recent book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War doesn’t lend itself as easily to humor, addressing as it does the stories of living humans and what they’ve endured during combat.
“I think the most emotionally difficult chapter I’ve done was the one where I interviewed Gavin White about having stepped on an IED and what that experience was like,” Roach said. “He’s a human being, he’s not a cadaver in a lab. I’d never spoken to someone who’s been through something like that. Trying to do that person justice—he’s sort of trusting me to present his story, and as a writer that’s a responsibility to do it right, and that to me is more challenging than a room full of heads.”
Even when the humor is set aside, Roach’s writing is still compelling. Also, the jokes end up coming back around.
“If I walked into a room full of heads of people I knew, that would be different,” Roach said, laughing. “God knows what situation that would be and what I’d be doing there.”