“I don’t want you to say ‘this is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting’ Okay, and maybe a little gross.”
Mary Roach sticks to her successful formula of inquisitiveness regardless of taboos and humour in the face of squeamishness in her exploration of the science of the digestive system. Roach delves into the scientific literature, and finds the most unusual quests for knowledge, from fecal transplants to fistulated stomachs and beyond. Then she tracks these scientists down and asks them questions that are even more unconventional. Her queries are one part Mythbusters—could Jonah really have survived inside a whale stomach?—and one part Ripley’s Believe it or Not—did you know that Elvis may have died not of a drug overdose but of constipation? That said, she writes about disgusting science—saliva, flatulence odours, and constipation—in a way that a person (I’m not saying me) who cried over their ninth grade frog dissection lab can get through with relative ease. I just can’t recommend eating while you read.
Roach is possessed of the kind of curiousity that makes you glad she isn’t a scientist herself—god knows what she would get up to—but happy that she is willing to do the research and leg work to get her bizarre questions answered for our reading pleasure. Her bibliography is full of papers with titles like “Optimizing the Sensory Characteristics and Acceptance of Canned Cat Food: Use of a Human Taste Panel,” and “Garlic Ingestion by Pregnant Women Alters the Odor of Amniotic Fluid.” It also takes a particular sang-froid to interview a convicted murderer about what it’s like to hold a balloon of smuggled tobacco inside the rectum, for example. Oh to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. For each new, potentially revolting topic, Roach hooks you with a humourous anecdote or an insightful question before putting the science to you in terms the general reader can understand.
Gruesomely fascinating from start to finish, Gulp is aimed squarely at those readers with an appetite for obscure knowledge.