Friday, January 28, 2011

In space, only your crewmates can hear you fart.

Title: Packing for Mars - The Curious Science of Life in the Void (find in a library)
Author: Mary Roach
Bookmark: a stick with a lizard in it.

Somehow, I had never before heard of Mary Roach. I'm glad that oversight has finally been corrected. Roach is apparently well-known for writing eye-watering funny books about science, presented with stunning frankness and candor and (if this book is any indication) filled with first-hand research. Not that she actually went to Mars to prepare for the book, but she did ride the Vomit Comet, visit space agencies in three different countries, and travel to NASA's research station on Devon Island in Canada, which is so lifeless and cold that it's the next best thing to an actual moon landing.

Packing For Mars isn't about space travel--not really. It's about how humans can travel in space (and a couple dogs, and a few primates). Hardly any time is spent on rockets, booster engines, and possible future drive systems. This book is all about what space does to us. How our bodies are affected by weeks (and months) without gravity, bathing, fresh food, privacy, and free time (astronauts' schedules are rigorously structured), and how each of those difficulties have led to astonishing breakthroughs in almost every realm of science. To get at those answers, Roach has gone to some unusual lengths to find the truth about space travel, and anything fascinating or hilarious that she discovered but didn't fit in the main text is likely to have found a home in her copious footnotes. One of my favorite examples comes from the chapter on sex in space, which found Roach talking to marine biologists to find out how dolphins mate, watching porn to find an elusive scene of sex unencumbered by gravity, and poring through an impressive amount of archive material to discover the truth about an alleged masturbating astrochimp:
*Further evidence of the difficulties of reduced-gravity sex comes from the sea otter. To help hold the female in place, the male will typically pull the female's head back and grab onto her nose with his teeth. "Our vets have had to do rhinoplasties on some of the females," says Michelle Staedler, sea otter research coordinator at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. (Sex can also be traumatic for the male otter, who endures aerial pecking attacks by seagulls mistaking his erect penis for a novel ocean delicacy.)
Roach focuses not on technology itself, but on how humans must interact with it to survive an environment we are not designed to survive. An entire chapter is devoted to the history and various advancements that allow astronauts to go to the bathroom without gravity (it's more difficult than you might think--without gravity pulling things down, our internal sensors can't tell when we're full. Astronauts have to set a schedule and stick to it, because they can't feel it when they have to go. Then there's the problem of getting detachment from both solid and liquids, both of which want to cling, and the danger of waste drifting out of a system that can't use gravity to contain it.). And that's good, because there are those that will ceaselessly point out that we can gather information from space more easily and with far less expense by sending robot probes instead of eating, breathing, sleeping, pooping, sweating, farting people who are fragile, susceptible to radiation and lack of gravity, water, and oxygen. People argue, stink, have individual wants and needs, and don't like eating the same colorless paste for days on end. And, as Roach points out in the final chapter, that is part of why people should go to space. Because we're people. We smell funny, we fart, we want variety in our food, we enjoy sex, we need to sleep almost a third of the time we're alive, but we dream, we innovate, we aspire, we wonder, and while we can represent some of the worst evils imaginable, we can also exhibit the greatest virtues imaginable. I've always been fascinated by space. I've always wanted to be an astronaut, and I've never needed anyone to convince me that we need to get up there. I cried when Challenger exploded, and kept a picture of Christa McAuliffe on my wall for years afterward. (Incidentally, the challenger disaster was 25 years ago today) Still, this book filled me with wide-eyed wonder, hope, and amazement just as often as it made me laugh hard enough to worry that the neighbors might be concerned.

In the spirit of Mary Roach's own footnotes, how great is it that a writer known for combining humor and science is named "Roach"?

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posted by reyn at 1:14 PM


Blogger Elizabeth said...

Sounds like you really liked it, awesome! I definitely have this one on my To-Read list...

2/02/2011 9:24 AM  

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