Weird Science

I have very little background in science.  I am, however, curious about the world.  Most of my questions arise as I’m doing simple, everyday tasks.  I wonder how air neutralizers work as I spray air freshener in a musty room.  I question why hair turns gray as we age when I look in the mirror.  I’m curious how batteries were invented—and why are the batteries at my house always dead?

Several years ago, I stumbled across the book Packing for Mars: the Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach.  Mary Roach is a science writer who is very upfront about the fact that she is not a scientist.  I loved how she addresses questions about how things work, why things are developed, and  how they are studied.  Her explanations are clear easy to understand.  She is willing to ask those “dumb” questions that we all have, like “What happens if an astronaut is sick while wearing a spacesuit?”  I find her books insightful and hilarious.

One of my favorite aspects of her research is that she is hands-on.  She backs everything up with plenty of research from science journals and scholarly articles. Ms. Roach actually goes to visit labs, training grounds, and other areas that are off-limits to most people.  Her interviews with scientists, researchers, businesses, and politicians are candid and she is willing to ask the uncomfortable questions.  She asked Jim Lovell, the Apollo 13 astronaut, if the dandruff and dead skin cells that shed, but have nowhere to go during space flight made it feel like a “snow globe” inside the space capsule.

She observes and often participates in testing and experiments.  In her latest book, Grunt: the Curious Science of Humans at War, she describes smelling the World War II nonlethal malodorant “Who me?” in great detail, giving detailed accounts of not only the physical outcome, but also her thoughts and emotions as she smelled the stink bomb.

If you have a curious mind, like to laugh, and don’t mind a few squeamish descriptions here and there, give Mary Roach’s books a try.

Jennifer Bekker
North Branch Library
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