Mary Roach has a penchant for tracking down the answers to the questions you never knew you had about the human body. People reading her books often wear the same expressions as people watching gory movies. Her sideways curiosity has led her to write about the fate of cadavers (Stiff) and the science of sex (Bonk). With Packing for Mars, she investigates what happens to our normally earthbound selves when we’re blasted off into zero gravity. It’s an utterly fascinating account, made all the more entertaining by the author’s ever-amused tone.

Roach takes enormous delight in what she does. Not surprising, considering that what she does leads her to chat about things like “fecal popcorn” and in-helmet upchucking, and the fact that only half the human population is capable of lighting its farts. Who wouldn’t have fun asking strait-laced NASA scientists to explain how one gets a “good seal” on a space toilet? Clearly, this is not your typical sober examination of the mission to conquer space. Roach is interested in heroics and technological awesomeness, but she’s even more interested in what those things do to humble human bodies. Accordingly, she homes in on the most bizarre and surprising details in the history of space travel.

Of course, it’s not all about the gags. Roach has a larger theme underlying her frequently goofy presentation: “One of the things I love about manned space exploration,” she writes, “is that it forces people to unlace certain notions of what is and isn’t acceptable.” The difficulties and indignities of space travel, she argues, are worthwhile because they teach us what is possible—they bring “a back-handed nobility” to our wilder ambitions. They remind us that wacky, silly, fun things can also be profoundly important. Laugh and learn.

Related content:
See our interview with Mary Roach about Packing for Mars.
 

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