Mary Roach is a trailblazer in the field of science. Though she’s not researching a cure for AIDS or holing herself up in a lab each day, she’s witnessing bodies decompose, drinking her own urine and examining post-mortem erections for the sake of knowledge. Just one conversation with her and it’s clear the research for her books–almost all New York Times best-sellers–is for her own enjoyment as much as her readers’; it’s what makes her a fantastic author. Whether she’s gleefully examining the life of cadavers in “Stiff” or training at NASA in “Packing for Mars,” Mary Roach makes science not only accessible but entertaining and insightful, even humanizing.
In her latest, “Gulp,” she delves into your digestive tract (and hers, and mine) and asks some tough questions we’ve all wondered at one point or another: Is it possible to eat yourself to death? If I’m swallowed by a whale, a la Jonah, can I survive? Did Elvis die on the toilet? It’s a fascinating glimpse into the taboos that both delight and disgust all of us and, given the subject matter, I couldn’t resist talking with Mary over a bite-to-be-bolus or two. We stopped by The Hamilton for an off-putting digestion play-by-play, some words on rectal smuggling, whether or not the gluttony death in Seven is accurate and, to be honest, one of the most fun and enlightening (albeit repelling) lunch conversations of my life.
BYT: So Mary, first off I wanted to tell you I really enjoyed “Gulp.” I like all of your books but this one felt so gross, so fun–
Mary: Delightfully gross, yes. Hopefully delightful, anyway.
It was delightful. Sometimes terrifying but delightful in the grander scheme of things. In terms of the scope of your work, you’ve had sex in an ultrasound, you have witnessed the heads of cadavers getting facelifts, you have tracked down an ancient ectoplasm which has come out of someone’s throat or otherwise…
Yes. Otherwise, in fact, a little further south. [Laughs]
You’ve put yourself in a vomit comet and in the latest book, you’ve eaten raw narwhal skin and put your hand inside a living cow. Does nothing phase you?
Book tour. [Laughs]
Getting up earlier than 6:00am totally undoes me. But in terms of grossness, you know the one thing that does? If you put a bowl of gumbo in front of me. I was told by Chris Kimball, who interviewed me last night in Boston, that it’s not prepared right if it does this but okra snot–you know when it’s cooked a certain way and it has that strand? I can’t. I mean I love gumbo but I look at the spoon and that little string and I can’t eat it.
But you’ve stared at bodily functions that look so similar…
I know! I’ve drunk my own processed and cleaned-up urine as a lunchtime beverage and yet I was undone by harmless okra snot. I mean, what are the things most people fear? Public speaking and death, I suppose, but I think more people fear public speaking than death. Not me. I’d rather speak publicly than be dead but that’s just me, I don’t know.
Well that also touches on “Stiff” and obviously “Spook;” both are great reads and “Stiff” is actually one of my favorite books. I wanted to ask you–since you’ve written those and it’s been a few years, has your outlook on mortality changed at all? I know that when you set out to write “Spook” you were hoping to find some scientific explanation for the afterlife…
You know when I wrote “Spook” I would have loved to have come across something that just shook everything up and made me go “Whoa, look at that! That’s pretty solid evidence!” but I think you’re better off on the faith route than the proof route when it comes to the afterlife. And much to my mother’s chagrin, I did not inherit the faith gene where you go, “Of course we’re going somewhere lovely, there’ll be 24-hour room service, there’ll be wi-fi everywhere, it’s gonna be greeeeat.” I’m kind of just assuming you go back to wherever you were before you were born, wherever that may be. So for me “Spook” was just interesting to look at people who apply scientific method to something that was not really easily `quantifiable or pin-down-able. It was more the people and the processes that were kind of interesting but I didn’t find a solid answer to the question of the millennia.
And nothing’s changed since then?
No, not really. I’m essentially the same goober I was when I started the whole string of books.
Speaking of the string of books, it struck me as interesting that at the start of “Gulp” you talk about NASA scientists and engineering, which is a lot like your last book, “Packing for Mars.” There are clear ties from “Stiff” to “Spook” dealing with mortality. Do you often find the inspiration for your next book in the process of writing a current book?
Sure, yeah. I think that I had so much fun in “Packing for Mars,” the time that I spent with the waste engineers at NASA was just so interesting. Not just in a 12 year old poop joke way but just in terms of it being a tremendous challenge to make the equipment–human and mechanical–work in a zero-gravity environment. How do you test that toilet, how do you–just the levels of complexity. So anyway that was a really fun chapter to do and it seemed to be the only thing that got covered in the media. It was as though I wrote an entire book about taking a crap in outer space when in fact it was one chapter. But yeah, sure, that was one part of what led me in this direction and also that study that I came across that I mention at the beginning of “Gulp,” about the space scientists trying to come up with an entree from space that would be purely dead bacteria. You know, like a soup, a slurry, maybe like a gazpacho. [Laughs] And you know, it’s just a very Mary Roach-ey type subject. It was kind of natural for me.
Has there been some sort of inspiration for your next book in writing “Gulp” or…
Sadly, no, I don’t know what the next book will be. Nothing in there has led… you know, I’m kind of at the end of the line with that book. In terms of taboo bodily subjects I’ve gone as far as I think I can go.
“Gulp” is full of a lot of wonderful and funny revelations and asides. You mention that you saw the distended colon that’s about 28 inches wide and you say you could wear the same size jeans; what are some of your largest or most surprising revelatory moments in “Gulp” or in any of your books?
Well in “Gulp,” every stop along the way was surprising, just in the human mouth. There are a lot of things that people have completely backwards. People think that saliva is just this horrible, infective bacteria-ridden swamp but in fact it’s got all these antibacterial and antiviral properties and it’s wound-healing and it saves your teeth. Actually it’s a very beneficial substance. People just know it as a curse–you know, to spit on somebody–or a course of infection or something that just is revolting. So I spent that day with the saliva researcher in her lab and it was just kind of mind-blowing. It’s the same with the teeth. People think of them as very strong, brutishly strong like hammers, but they’re very, very sensitive. That was kind of amazing to me, and also all of the different types of safety mechanisms you have in your stomach and intestines to prevent a rupture. Because, you know, the whole alimentary canal is kind of almost more like the outside of you than you because there’s a lot of bacteria in there, there’s putrefaction, there’s possibly pathogens depending on what’s growing in there, so you definitely don’t want that leaking beyond the confines of the big doughnut hole that runs through you. Your body’s got all these sort of reflexive mechanisms so that was pretty cool to learn about all of those.
Absolutely. It was cool to read about, anyway. So you discuss the possible leakage, you also talk about parasites, eating yourself to death, whether or not you can survive being swallowed by another organism–does any of your research give you neuroses once you learn that something is scientifically or biologically possible?
[Laughs] Well the Could Anything Survive Inside You part was actually very comforting because it’s very, very hard for anything other than parasites to survive inside you and people used to be paranoid. In the 1700s and 1800s there were cases in medical journals of stomach snakes and stomach frogs and slugs. People would interprete the feelings of the gurglings and the movements of the intestines, they would become convinced that there was something living inside them. They would go to a doctor, occasionally they would see something moving in their homes and go, “Oh my god, right after I went to the bathroom, that had been inside me.” They’d bring it to the doctor and say, “Here it is! Here’s the one that was inside me!” and it took some sleuthing and at a certain point someone said, “Let’s open up that frog and see what’s inside and if there’s insects, well clearly it wasn’t living inside of you for 10 years.” So I think that there’s more comforting material than neurosis-generating material.
Well I know you were saying in the chapter about eating yourself to death, people died from eating too much yeast and that’s actually kind of terrifying to me. You know, like the guy who had too much yeasty beer, now I’m sort of terrified about yeasty beer.
[Laughs] No, don’t be. This was obviously about someone who was doing the 1700s equivalent of like, the boot or whatever. Somebody must’ve been doing something like a beer bong because that’s like a sudden, massive intake of gas that’s outpacing the body’s ability to protect you by making you belch, throw up, you know, the reflexes that help you. I mean, you drink beer and when the pressure starts to build up to anywhere near a dangerous level, you burp. There are a few case reports of people eating a tremendous amount of food and feeling uncomfortable and taking a lot of bicarbonate soda; that produces a sudden explosion of gas and that’s most of the cases of stomach rupture. There are very few and that’s what it is–it’s gas that comes on so fast that your body can’t really adjust. But no, you shouldn’t worry. If anything people should be comforted that it’s very hard to rupture the human stomach.
So in the case of that movie Seven where the guy eats the spaghetti–
I didn’t see the movie… But seven deadly sins so gluttony. So he eats the spaghetti and what happens?
Well the serial killer feeds a large man spaghetti in buckets over a period of time and then he kicks the guy in the stomach and he dies. Is that entirely possible? I’ve sort of been wondering this my whole life.
Oh! OK, yeah, if you’re gonna kick somebody–if you get a sudden blow to the stomach–then that is a circumstance that you do need to worry about. Don’t hang around with people who are likely to kick you in the stomach after you’ve eaten a very large meal. This is my advice to everybody. Words to live by.
Definitely. Well in “Gulp,” the scientist van Vliet says that people eat physics; the sound of eating, you talk about the scent of eating toward the beginning of your book. Has writing “Gulp” changed the way that you personally eat?
I don’t have a sweet tooth but if there’s something salty and crunchy, something that’s just wonderfully crispy, it’s hard for me to stop eating it. I love that crunching. So now that I understand the process, it’s just more fascinating to me. Then again, I guess I’m aware that I’m falling prey to the ability of the snack food companies to create the optimal crunch. It’s a specific crispy-crunchy. You know, they can tell you how fast that crack is spreading, what the decibel level is ideally; the physics of a crispy-crunchy snack item are very specific and very effective so I’m definitely aware of when I’m succumbing to that. The sound that they make and the feeling of them breaking apart in your mouth is just irresistible for a lot of people.
Has it changed your diet at all after reading about what sort of things digest easier, harder…?
No, I just eat what I want to eat anyway but I’m definitely more of an annoying person to eat with ’cause I have all these facts. You know, I’ll be like, “Wow, protein is completely absorbed. It’s the most easily digested food and people don’t really think of that but it’s like egg. Egg is perfect. In terms of what you’re going to digest, there’s no fiber, you just totally absorb it. So I can make a commentary on what people are eating in a really annoying way. [Laughs] But I haven’t changed what I eat. I still eat anything and everything.
[Right on time, our food arrives]
Now that we’re eating, what is the process of the food we see before us? What is going to happen–
[Laughs and chopsticks a mouthful of rice out of her bento box] Well, I was going to say it’s good we got rice and sushi because what you do in your mouth is form a bolus to swallow. Sushi chefs, when they do nigiri, they take a small handful and roll it into a bolus so it’s a very specific shape and your tongue and cheeks are doing that.
So without even realizing it, you’re creating balls of food within your own mouth.
Yes. You’re like an accomplished sushi chef in your mouth without having any idea that you’re doing it, which is good because if you think about it, it’s a little gross. People don’t really like to think about it until they read my book and they’re like, “Aaaargh!” [Her sour expression shifts into a smile] No. I hope people gain some appreciation for their equipment instead of just being grossed out.
Oh, absolutely. I’ve also learned so much more about Elvis’s digestive ailments.
Yeah, poor guy. As if the drugs weren’t bad enough. The drugs definitely contributed and he had a bad heart but the moment of death was pretty specific. But we don’t need to go into that just now. [Lifts chopsticks to her mouth and begins forming a bolus]
Well so after you create the bolus, what occurs next?
Well, you swallow. Inside your neck you have a kind of a railroad switching yard. There are two tracks and it’s very important that food go into the proper track and not down into the lungs, as food and saliva have a lot of bacteria so if you got those into the lungs where it’s nice and dark and warm and moist, you could get an infection and pneumonia. So that’s why it’s bad to literally inhale food. I didn’t know. I thought it was just a choking hazard but you’ve gotta be careful of infection. So right before you swallow the bolus, your voice box has to change position and the airway closes off so you’re not breathing while you swallow and the food tube opens up. So the bolus is held for a minute–kind of like a metering light at a toll plaza–and as soon as everything’s ready and repositioned, it goes down the tube and into your stomach. [Takes another bite of fried oyster]
So it goes down the esophagus–
Into the stomach, where it’s turned into chyme–which Jim Croce likes to sing about, Chyme in a Bottle. [Laughs through her food] Only because it was playing in the restroom. Anyway sometimes people say, “Oh, you have to chew your food super thoroughly” but if you know the work of William Beaumont, that guy I talk about in the book who studied a man with a hole in his stomach and put food directly in in a mesh bag and then pulled it back out, [the food would] be gone. The stomach is very good at liquifying what you put in it with a few exceptions. You can roll through food and not chew it well and your stomach will pick up the slack. The whole Fletcherizing, super-thorough chewing thing is kind of an insult to the roll of the stomach [Readies her chopsticks for another bite] because the stomach is very good at turning your food into chyme, which is a liquid sort of a smoothie. [Takes bite, unphased]
And then from there?
Well once it’s ready to move on it goes through the pylorus–which is Greek for “gatekeeper,” which I love–into the small intestine and that’s where the absorption of all the good nutrients happens. And then what isn’t absorbed, you know, the fibers and things that your intestines can’t take in, that gets passed along to the colon. The colon is a sort of a holding facility. There’s a lot of bacterial breakdown of fibers and things that you can’t absorb in your small intestine and that creates some nutrients and also creates your waste. [Nonchalantly chopsticks another mouthful of soon-to-be-waste] It dries it out and holds it ’til it’s a better time, ’til it’s not runny, ’til it’s a number four on the Bristol Stool Scale.
This is the best lunch conversation I think I’ve ever had, by the way.
OK, so speaking about the colon, you also talk about prisoners smuggling or hooping items into jail and you mention some really strange examples. What was the weirdest one to you? To me, the smartphones sounded pretty uncomfortable.
Ooh, yeah. Well, cellphones are a hot item in prison because they’re not allowed and if you have a cellphone in prison, you can still do you business whether it’s arranging drug deals or having people killed or whatever it is that you feel you need to do while you’re in prison. But you’re not allowed to have them so they get smuggled in but the age of the smartphone has made it a lot more uncomfortable to smuggle them rectally. You know, the rectum’s just a secret pocket. It’s a storage facility! The body uses it as a storage facility and so do prisoners.
And then there was a guy at the prison I went to and he got busted hooping something like three large binder rings, a stapler… they called him “O.D.” for Office Depot and they never figured out what he was going to do with these things. But anyway, he took them in in his back pocket, as they say, his prison wallet.
Mary, why science? You’re such a fun science writer but did you want to be a scientist as a child? Raise a mad scientist?
Well, no. At a certain point someone contacted me from Discover Magazine when I was still freelancing for magazines and I just enjoyed the writing I did for them. There were a couple of magazines where I was writing about physiology and science and I just found it more interesting than anything else. It sort of fit my sensibility, I guess. Science is just people trying to understand how the world works and the world is you and your body and your pet and your computer and the weather so I don’t really understand when people say “I don’t like science.” It seems like just knowing how the world works is inherently fascinating. I guess it depends on wjhat people think science is when they say “I don’t like science” but I’ve always enjoyed it for that reason–just something you always took for granted and you go, “Oh, that’s how it works! Cool!”
That’s great and I think that sums it all up, I suppose. Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?
No, this is great!
Well fantastic! Mary, thank you so much for joining me for the most fascinating and disgusting lunch conversation I’ve ever had.
Complete with all sorts of disgusting mouth sounds and crunching.
***“Gulp” is available through mom-and-pop book shops, major retail chains, online at Amazon or iBookstore and more. To catch Mary while she’s still on her book tour, check out her schedule here. Thank you to The Hamilton for accommodations and what Mary claimed was the best (pre-digested) food she’d had on her tour thus far.***