Mary Roach

Gulp

Mary Roach is an American author, specializing in popular science. She currently resides in Oakland, California. To date, she has published four books: ‘Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers’ (2003), ‘Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife’ (2005), ‘Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex’ (2008) and ‘Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void’ (2010).  Roach was raised in Etna, New Hampshire.

She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wesleyan University in 1981. After college, Roach moved to San Francisco and spent a few years working as a freelance copy editor. She worked as a columnist, and also worked in public relations for a brief time. Her writing career began while working part-time at the San Francisco Zoological Society, producing press releases on topics such as elephant wart surgery.

On her days off from the SFZS, she wrote freelance articles for the San Francisco Chronicle’s ‘Sunday Magazine.’ From 1996 to 2005 Roach was part of The Grotto, a San Francisco based project and community of working writers and filmmakers. It was in this community, that Roach would get the push she needed to break into book writing. While being interviewed by Alex C. Telander, of BookBanter, Roach answers the question of how she got started on her first book: A few of us every year [from The Grotto] would make predictions for other people, where they’ll be in a year. So someone made the prediction that, ‘Mary will have a book contract.’ I forgot about it and when October came around I thought, I have three months to pull together a book proposal and have a book contract. This is what literally lit the fire under my butt.’

In 1986, she sold a humor piece about the IRS to the ‘San Francisco Chronicle.’ That piece led to a number of humorous first-person essays and feature articles for such publications as ‘The New York Times Magazine,’ ‘National Geographic,’ and ‘Wired.’ She has also written several articles for Salon.com, she wrote reviews for tech gadgets at Inc.com, and has also had an article published in the ‘Journal of Clinical Anatomy.’ Roach also had monthly columns in ‘Reader’s Digest’ (‘My Planet’) and ‘Sports Illustrated for Women,’ (‘The Slightly Wider World of Sports’). Besides being a best selling author, Roach is involved in many other projects on the side. Roach reviews books for ‘The New York times’ and was the guest editor of the Best American Science and Nature Writing’s 2011 edition. She also serves as a member of the Mars Institute’s Advisory Board and was recently asked to join the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

While it is clear that Roach has a wide variety of somewhat unusual interests, her interest is not limited to observation alone. While researching material for her book, ‘Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,’ Roach came across Dr. Jing Deng, a University College London Medical School senior lecturer in medical physics. Dr. Deng was experimenting with 4-D ultrasound imaging and was in need of test subjects to engage in intercourse while wearing the ultrasound equipment so that real-time images could be captured. Roach and her husband Ed were the first willing participants in this study. When asked how she was able to convince her husband to participate, Roach said, ‘He’s crazy supportive. It was much harder for him, it was nothing for me. I was just a receptacle. I was just taking notes.’

While Roach has often been quoted saying that she doesn’t have much free time between writing books, something she is very fond of is backpacking and travel, the latter is something she has been able to do a great deal of while doing research for her articles and books; to that end, Roach has been able to visit all seven continents twice. Roach has been to Antarctica a few times as part of the National Science Foundation’s Polar Program; her Antarctic trip in 1997 was taken to write an article for ‘Discover Magazine’ on meteorite hunting, with meteorite hunter Ralph Harvey.

In 1995, Roach’s article ‘How to Win at Germ Warfare’ was a National Magazine Award Finalist. In the article, Roach conducts an interview with microbiologist Chuck Gerba of the University of Arizona who describes a scientific study where bacteria and virus particles become aerosolized upon flushing a toilet: ‘Upon flushing, as many as 28,000 virus particles and 660,000 bacteria [are] jettisoned from the bowl.’ In 1996, her article on earthquake-proof bamboo houses, ‘The Bamboo Solution,’ took the American Engineering Societies’ Engineering Journalism Award, in the general interest magazine category. In this article the reader learns from Jules Janssen, a civil engineer, that bamboo is ‘stronger than wood, brick, and concrete…A short, straight column of bamboo with a top surface area of 10 square centimeters could support an 11,000-pound elephant.’

While some people might assume from the subject matter of Roach’s books that she may be obsessed with death – dead bodies in ‘Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers’ and life after death in ‘Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife’ – the common theme throughout all four of her books is actually the human body. Roach tells us, ‘My books are all [about the human body], ‘Spook’ is a little bit of departure because it’s more about the soul rather than the flesh and blood body, but most of my books are about human bodies in unusual circumstances.’ When asked by Peter Sagal, of NPR, specifically how she picks her topics, she said, ‘Well, its got to have a little science, it’s got to have a little history, a little humor – and something gross.’

It has been said, that while Roach does not possess a science degree, she is able to take complex ideas and turn them into something that the average reader can understand; while at the same time, taking the reader with her every step of the way, from learning about the material to getting to know the interesting people who study it. According to Roach, ‘Make no mistake, good science writing is medicine. It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy. Good science writing peels away the blindness, generates wonder, and brings the open palm to the forehead: ‘Oh! Now I get it!” A quote from the introduction of ‘Spook,’ shows a bit of Roach’s skepticism about the world around her: ‘Flawed as it is, science remains the most solid god I’ve got. And so I’ve decided to turn to it, to see what it had to say on the topic of life after death. Because I know what religion says, and it perplexes me. It doesn’t deliver a single, coherent, scientifically sensible or provable scenario… Science seemed the better bet.’

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