Mary Roach


Dinner’s Revenge: mealworms that survive in the stomach, then eat their way out of predators

“Within ten to twenty seconds,” came the report, “the mealworm is chewing out of the animal’s stomach.”

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Death in Space

The U.S. has plans for a manned visit to Mars by the mid-2030s. The ESA and Russia have sketched out a similar joint mission, and it is claimed that China’s space program has the same objective. Apart from their destination, all these plans share something in common: extraordinary danger for the explorers. What happens if someone dies out there, months away from Earth?

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Space Food: The Best and Worst

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Astronaut foods during the Gemini and Apollo programs were highly processed, because "low-residue" food meant fewer encounters with the dread fecal bag. To prevent crumbs, which could float into eyes and instrumentation panels, many foods - even "sandwiches" -- took the form of bite-sized cubes lacquered with waxy, congealed oils. Rarely has anything so cute been so loathed. The coating stuck to the roof of the mouth and the cubes had to be rehydrated by "holding in the mouth for ten seconds."

Runner-up: dehydrated "astronaut ice cream." Only three astronauts (Apollo 8) ever ate it in space, and not very much of it. Without "the creamy, icy sensation of regular ice cream," writes retired NASA food scientist Charles Bourland, "it just wasn't popular with the crews."

Space food has grown moister and more normal over the years, to the point where Emeril and Rachael Ray have gotten involved and Bourland (with science writer Gregory Vogt) has put out a cookbook: The Astronaut's Cookbook: Tales, Recipes and More (Springer, 2010). It is somewhat unusual for the genre, in that it includes sentences like: "The medical guy dropped to the deck and soaked up the emesis with a sponge so that it could be determined how much of the liquid Joe had actually consumed."

Below is Bourland's recipe for the astronauts' all-time favorite space food. Astronaut Story Musgrave used to request it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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Human decomposition comics from Mary Roach and Ariyana Suvarnasuddhi

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Following up on the castration comics, here's another pair of panels by Ariyana Suvarnasuddhi, inspired by my books (in this case, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers). This one draws on the stages of human decomposition. Ariyana zeroed in on food images and references in the chapter, using a visit to a sushi bar to illustrate phenomena like "skin slip" and end-stage soupiness (not a technical term). Her work just floors me. More at www.feed-ariyana.com.

Castration comics from Mary Roach and Ariyana Suvarnasuddhi

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My last book, Bonk, has a chapter about penis transplants and reattachments. It includes the story of an epidemic of penile dismemberments in Thailand during the 1970s. In the wake of a well-publicized case, more than 100 angry Thai women hacked off the penises of their adulterous husbands while they slept. Often the women threw the severed organs out the window in disgust, attracting the attention of the livestock that hang out in the shade beneath the elevated homes of rural Thailand. (Oddly, it was ducks, not pigs, that went after the penises -- often enough that there's a saying in Thailand now: "I better get home, or the ducks will have something to eat.")

A couple months ago, a young Baltimore comic artist and illustrator named Ariyana Suvarnasuddhi sent me these amazing panels inspired by the story. "When I first read that passage about the epidemic I remembered thinking 'Of course!'" she told me in an email. "Not just because I'm Thai, but because any reference to Thailand in American entertainment seems to be about either prostitution or transvestites."

Click the images to view them larger. You can see more of Ariyana's work at www.feed-ariyana.com.

Styrofoam cup after 3,100 feet underwater

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The coolest thing I own is a Styrofoam cup that went down to the bottom of the Palmer Deep, off the Palmer Peninsula in Antarctica. It was in a net bag tied to an oceanographer's water column sampler. I don't remember the name of the researcher, but she or he let everyone on the research vessel, including hanger-on science writers, send down a cup. The pressure of 10,400 3,100 feet of water compressed the tiny air bubbles inside the Styrofoam and turned a grande cup into an espresso cup. More reasons not to go scuba-diving at the bottom of the Palmer Deep.

Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force

Birthingpatentttt A centrifuge creates excess gravitational force (G's) by spinning things, and sometimes people. (It's excess G's that press you into your roller coaster seat on those nauseating loops.) Aerospace medicine types spent lots of time in the 1960s documenting the unpleasant effects of excess G's. If a pilot starts spinning in a high-altitude bailout, for instance, the outward force on his/her head can rupture vessels in the eyes and brain and even, at spins in excess of 175 rpm, spin the brain right off its brainstem. La, la la.

Seen here is an unusual example of excess G's being harnessed for the good. The patent holders, George B. and Charlotte Blonsky, contend that the centrifuge could be a boon to "more civilized women," who, they surmise, often lack the muscle strength needed to easily push out a baby. Centrifugal force would act as a sort of invisible midwife, lessening the muscular force required for birthing. Would it work, though? Could one create enough outward force on the baby to make a difference -- without simultaneously making the mother lightheaded? I sent the patent to April Ronca, who used to research the effects of zero G on fetal growth and birth for NASA. "That is an interesting invention," she replied.

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As with so many U.S. patents -- the "Decorative Penile Wrap" I stumbled onto while researching my previous book leaps to mind -- one longs to know the back story. Did Charlotte undergo a difficult birth? Did the couple actually build and use the thing? Perhaps they'll read this and post a comment.

Note the elasticized "pocket-shaped newborn net" - lest the baby shoot out and bump its head with double-G force.

Patent No. 3,216,423: Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force, Patented November 9, 1965