Richard's Reviews > Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
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's review
Dec 14, 10

really liked it
bookshelves: funny, nonfiction, science, bookclub
Recommended to Richard by: Down to a Science Science Café
Recommended for: Fans of the humor inherent in science.
Read from December 08 to 14, 2010

Mary Roach now has a lock on a certain kind of book. Science is her beat, and her shtick is to make it funny — often hilariously funny. But be forewarned: her take on “funny” means she is going to violate any taboo that gets in the way of making you cringe and groan at the same time you laugh.

In her first book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife , she did the topic as funny-but-creepy, and hadn’t yet glommed on to her now-predictable gross-out brand of humor.

That came in brilliantly with her second book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers . Now you could get science done as hilarious and creepy and gross!

She dropped the creepy and replaced it with mildly titillating in her third (and still my favorite), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex . But definitely still hilarious and gross.

In Packing for Mars , she’s tightened her focus. No more creepy, no more titillating, just funny in that juvenile way of hers. She asks the questions that any “mature” adults would never dare ask, and then begs for the juicy details. I’m sure many of the people she interviews are non-plussed at how to respond; those that don't know her previous work probably think she’s a kook. She appears to be okay with that.

As usual, much of her funniest asides come in the form of footnotes. Here’s one, from the chapter on NASA’s research on how to best, er, replicate what toilets do in the absence of gravity. It turns out that NASA has saved the “output” of astronauts for years...
Astronaut specimens from the Skylab and Apollo eras are still around, in freezers on the top floor of a windowless high-security building at Houston's Johnson Space Center—the one that houses NASA's collection of (non-biological) moon rocks. “I’m not sure what our inventory of excreta from Apollo is right now,” John Charles told me. “Forty years of freezing, with occasional thaws due to power outages during hurricanes, may have reduced them to mere vestiges of their former glory.” They were there as of 1996, because planetary biologist Ralph Harvey stumbled onto them when he got lost taking a group of VIPs on a tour. “Back then all the doors opened to the same code,” he recalls. “I opened this one door and it was almost like the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. There were these rows of long, low freezers. They all had a little light on them that’s blinking, and a temperature readout, and a piece of tape with the astronaut’s name. I’m like, Shit, they stored the astronauts in there! and I quickly got the people out. I found out later that was where they stored the astronaut feces and urine.” Harvey can’t recall the room number. “You have to stumble onto it, that’s the only way you can find it. It’s like Narnia.”
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See the review at the New York Times: Astral Bodies (August 6, 2010).


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message 1: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim I believe "Stiff" came before "Spook". Otherwise, great review. I agree with you. Fantastic books.

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