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The Science of Ghosts – “Spook” by Mary Roach

I adore Mary Roach.

So let me get this out of the way before we begin.

Of Mary Roach’s four books (all of which I’ve now read) “Spook” is my least favorite.

This isn’t really an insult, as her previous works,  “Stiff,” “Bonk,” and “Packing for Mars,” were all such brilliantly crafted pieces of non-fiction that I couldn’t put them down, and have passed my copies on to other people so they, too, could experience the wonder of Ms. Roach and her nerdy-self-deprecating-science writing.

Where the other books tackled the science behind humans in space travel, sex research, and what happens to cadavers after they’ve been donated, “Spook” tries to take a scientific approach to a completely un-scientific thing; ghosts.  Roach calls up the experts and the history in the fields of everything from EVP recording to the long-held legend of how a ghost helped a man uncover a long-lost will.

It all adds up perfectly.  But something is missing.  Maybe it’s because where Roach has knocked it out of the park with the science of dead bodies, sex, and space (all established sciences), ghost hunting is more free-form, and less easy to prove or disprove.

That said, she gives it her all.

Roach, as always, is lively and candid as she trudges through the trenches.  She’s not afraid to go where other, more squeamish, writers might fear to tread.   Like a champ, she picks up her tape recorder and, you know, goes to one of the reported sites on the Donner Party trail.  Just another day at the office.

I didn’t dislike this book.  Far from it.  I’m really glad I read it.  The section on ectoplasm and the lengths early mediums would go to is mind-blowing.  (And must have been pretty convincing for early 20th century minds – Houdini himself was brought in to see if he could figure out how the tricks were being done.)

All in all, though, “Spook” is a slightly less-than-brilliant book from an undeniably brilliant writer.

My not loving, merely liking, this book won’t stop me from picking up Roach’s next book with hope and delight.

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The Gross Hilarity of Humans in Space – “Packing for Mars” by Mary Roach

[Last post of 2010!]

Body Odor.  Monkey Masturbation.  Poop-collecting bags.

All this may sound gross to you, but for NASA scientists it’s just another day at the office.

America’s funniest science writer, Mary Roach, has done it again.  Having shone light on the brave souls who work with cadavers, study sex, and hunt ghosts in her last three books, with “Packing for Mars” she turns her rabid curiosity and wonderfully absurd sense of humor to the skies.  Roach ventures into an area lesser-stomached writers would never dare to tread – the science behind putting human beings in space.  Not the science of building rockets and all that jazz, mind you.  We’re talking about the physical science of placing human beings with incredibly flawed and differing human bodies inside those rockets and ships that will go shooting out into space and will often keep them there for weeks or even years at a time.

Humans must be the most frustrating thing for scientists, for no amount of mathematical genius or higher education can presume to understand the factors present in a person’s mental and physical make-up.   Who can predict out of a line-up of trained potential astronauts who’s going to be the one to have a nervous breakdown or fall apart under pressure?   Unfortunately for the highly-educated researchers and scientists, humans are needed to pilot spacecraft and for the exploration of other planets.

And so, strange research has to happen.

What happens if you puke in your helmet during a spacewalk?  Are there really people paid to lie down for months at a time to study the effects of lack of movement on the human body? Did someone really leave a plastic banana on the grave of Ham, the first chimp to go into orbit?  Was there really a porn film shot in zero-gravity?  These, and many other mysterious questions are answered (or at least explored) within the eye-opening and laughter-inducing pages of “Packing for Mars.”

I think Mary Roach is the bee’s knees.    She writes candidly and with a quick wit, and she’s never afraid to step up to a challenge. For this book, she jumps into zero-gravity and drinks re-furbished urine to get the full effect of the millions of dollars spent on these studies.

She’s a bold, whip-smart lady and I look forward to each new book of hers.

[I bought this book for my Stepdad for Christmas. I hope he enjoys it as much as I did!]

The Science of Sex – “Bonk” by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is a ballsy lady.  As a writer, she’s not afraid of the stuff that makes most people cringe.  Not only is she not afraid, she often jumps headfirst into the subject she’s researching.

Ghosts, Dead bodies, Space – nothing is off limits for Ms. Roach.

Roach’s “Bonk” is a hyper-smart book about the scientists who work in the field most likely to elicit a red-faced whisper: sex research.

We’re a world with a weird relationship with sex – Though it fascinates us, it shames us.  Roach understands this – and highlights the fact that our blushing at the very mention of sex have significantly held back research into sexual matters – particularly where women are concerned.  For example, did you know that turn of the century doctors didn’t actually look at the vaginas of the women they were treating? Their training was done on cadavers, but when it came time for actual treatment, the doctor couldn’t gaze upon the body part he was treating.

Make no mistake, though the book obviously talks about some of the science of sex, it’s largely about the crazy things sex researchers have had to do in order to further their research – largely for fear of being dubbed a pervert or not getting funding for projects.

From an intriguing look into people who create sex machines, to the work of Alfred Kinsey, to ancient Chinese remedies for impotence (tiger penis, anyone?) “Bonk” doesn’t back down. When Roach visits a doctor noted for working on penis implants, she gets in on the action.  She even convinces her husband to take part in some sexual research with her, which had me laughing out loud and re-reading the passage to my own husband.

Roach’s book about cadavers – “Stiff” – was easily one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read.  Literally, I couldn’t put it down.  Her candor and intelligence, as well as her exemplary research and writing skills, put her on the list of authors who’s next work I’m excited for.  (Her most recent book, “Packing for Mars,” was released in August and is on my short list of titles to tackle soon.  It’s about space travelers, and I cannot wait.)

Mary Roach for the win.