I don’t like science. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in science (and I don’t think you get to pick and choose which science you believe in based on what’s convenient for you) and am grateful that others have devoted their lives to studying the subject as I would hate to live in a world without penicillin or DVRs. But on the whole, I don’t really get science or find it interesting, so I discovered something surprising a few years ago when I was watching the BEA author’s breakfast on CSPAN. For those of those of you who don’t know (or care), BEA is the major publishing trade show for the retail market and the author’s breakfast always features some high profile writers there to hawk their newest release. I had tuned in because Jon Stewart (one of my long-standing TV boyfriends) was the emcee, but science writer Mary Roach was there plugging her new book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (W.W. Norton 2010). Normally I would probably have fast-forwarded past her to get back to my boyfriend, but she starting about space toilets and was so funny and charming that I watched her whole speech. Even stranger, I actually wanted to read the book. Three years later, I finally got around to it and long story short (not really), I really liked it!
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void is all about the kind of people, preparation, and stuff you need to go to space. What kind of person can handle the pressures of space the best? What does that kind of confinement do to a person? How does someone maintain personal hygiene without gravity or the ability to go outside? Or go to the bathroom? Or have sex (should the opportunity arise, so to speak)? What kind of food will provide the nutrition astronauts need while not being SO awful that it makes them want to kill themselves? And how does NASA (or any other space agency) get the answers to those questions? By testing, and retesting, and testing again any possible solution. Mary Roach interviews hundreds of astronauts and scientists who tackle those questions every day and gets behind the scenes in a world that very few people know about.
Though thoroughly researched and sourced, Roach’s almost conversational writing style makes the material very accessible. She has a knack for explaining sciencey things to the layperson in a way that’s understandable, entertaining, and really funny. Though my eyes did glaze over in a few spots, I put the blame on my severe science deficiency, not her. Roach also exhibits palpable excitement and enthusiasm towards her subjects, which makes the book even more fun. I mean, any writer that puts THAT much time into researching a topic has to be at least somewhat interested in the subject, but Roach seems to delight in the absurd, ridiculous, and downright gross aspects of space travel. Did you know there was such a thing called fecal popcorn? Well now I do as it was described in gleefully exhaustive detail.
I wasn’t inspired to run off and join the space program (if anything, science aptitude aside, it confirmed how ill-suited to the profession I would be) or even read more about the astronauts, but I was satisfied to learn more about a subject that I didn’t normally care for and be entertained at the same time. Well done, Ms. Roach. That is no easy feat.
This PSA has been stuck in my head for days since reading this book. Everybody sing along! “Astronomy, biology, chemistry, zoology. Science and technology … it’s fun, you’ll see!” Nice try, PSA.