In this week’s These Vibes, the great non-fiction writer and New York Times bestselling author Mary Roach called in to the studio to discuss her new book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Her past works include Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.
In Grunt, Roach tackles the varied and interesting science and scientists behind everything that could possibly be done to keep a human beings intact – in all meanings of the word – in the extreme and often bizarre circumstances of war. Of course, it can’t cover everything, but the many topics include heat exhaustion, sleep deprivation on submarines, using maggots to clean decaying wounds (beginning on the battlefield, but now extending to difficult to treat infections), the testing and careful choices made by military uniform designers, misadventures in shark repellant, and quite a bit more. One might think that a topic like how they make and test the fabric for an infantry uniform would be really dry – but it’s really…not. Roach has an informal style that somehow manages to handle dark and serious topics with care, but without being too over-bearing. Grunt is both light-hearted and big-hearted, while being outstandingly informative, and without ever – not for a second – being dry. (She has a similar style to Bill Bryson, an author I love dearly. He wrote A Walk in the Woods and A Shot History of Nearly Everything, just to name a couple.)
Clearly, I sincerely enjoyed reading this book. There’s this kind of interplay between what we naively think should be the case in a situation (e.g. maggots are gross and we should steer clear) and what’s actually going on when you (or Mary Roach) do a bit of research (maggots are outstanding for cleaning difficult wounds).
As I was reading I kind of came to think of it as a nerd’s beach read. Do pick it up!
Update: Mary Roach did a fun question/answer on the various terms she learned while researching for Grunt. Check it out here:
Later in the show (around 1 hour 42 minutes in), doctoral researcher in science history and regular contributor to These Vibes, Ingrid Ockert, gives an excellent and interesting report on the book Inventing the American Astronaut, by Matthew Hersch. In her piece she takes us through the ins and outs of 1960’s space culture. She also mentioned Hidden Figures (to be published this Fall and made in to a movie), by Margot Lee Shetterly, and Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (MIT Press), by David Meerman Scott.