Most people make a funny face when you tell them you’re reading a science book for pleasure. It’s an expression of horror and confusion, a look that says “it sucks to be you” and “that’s wasted time you’ll never get back.” But once you explain you’re reading a new Mary Roach book, pity is often replaced with acute interest, followed by three inevitable questions: “What’s it about? Is it funny? Can I borrow it when you’re finished?”
Mary Roach writes science books for a living, but not the kind of science books you struggled to read back in school. Roach’s books are hilariously smart, endlessly informative and utterly entertaining. Her first book, Stiff (2003), was about cadavers and the various ways dead bodies are used after being donated to science. Subsequent Roach efforts tackled the afterlife (Spook, 2005), sex (Bonk, 2008) and the alimentary canal (Gulp, 2013). In each book, Roach combines hard science with a childlike curiosity (Can a dead man get an erection? Can constipation kill you?) and the trenchant wit you’d expect from an observational humorist riffing in front of a brick wall.
Her latest book, Grunt (W. W. Norton, $27), examines military science. No, not the folks working on more efficient weapons or new strategies for world domination. Roach talks with the designers who clothe soldiers year-round, the tireless researchers who lose sleep over just how little sleep sailors get on nuclear submarines and the doctors who sweat over heatstroke and lost limbs. As Roach says in her introduction, she’s “interested in the parts no one makes movies about—not the killing, but the keeping alive.”
Grunt takes readers on a memorable field trip to U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center for a lively discussion on flame-resistant fabric. In a chapter on armored combat vehicles and the damage done by RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), Roach reports on a new line of vehicles that are mine-resistant and ambush protected. Once the Army realized the standard automotive crash-test dummy was unsuitable for testing the specific trauma caused by explosive devices in the field, a new dummy (WIAMan, the Warrior Injury Assessment Manikin) was developed to better understand (and ultimately prevent) damage from underbody explosions.
Elsewhere, Roach discusses hearing loss with a group of audiologists and learns how earplugs can adversely affect soldiers’ “situational awareness.” She talks explosive diarrhea with a Navy researcher (in a chapter called “Leaky SEALS”) and visits a ballistic missile submarine to learn more about the sleep patterns of sailors. For those readers who might get weak-kneed reading about genital transplants, there’s a breezy chapter on stink bombs.
There’s plenty of laughter to be had in Grunt, but never mistake Roach’s wonderful sense of humor for disrespect. She’s a journalist first, a humorist second. Or maybe it’s a tie. Either way, reading Mary Roach makes my mind feel full, the way your stomach does after an extraordinary meal. Like her other books, Grunt comes highly recommended. ★★★★✩