Mary Roach Goes to War … In a Science-y Kind of Way

Event details: Acclaimed science writer and humorist Mary Roach shares a National Writers Series conversation with guest host Benjamin Busch, actor, author and U.S. Marine veteran. Traverse City Opera House, June 7, doors open at 6 p.m. with live music, cash bar and pastries by Morsels. Event starts at 7 p.m. A book signing immediately follows.

Not all the battles of war involve guns, and not all heroism involves carrying a wounded soldier to safety in a hail of bullets. In her newest book, GRUNT: The Curious Science of Humans at War, best-selling author Mary Roach writes about the unsung heroes who protect soldiers against the less-considered combat adversaries—exhaustion, dehydration, shock, panic, disease, extreme heat, ear-splitting noise, and … diarrhea.

Roach pays homage to the scientists and surgeons who do the hard work of figuring out how to keep soldiers alive in the field. Captain Herschel Flowers of the Army Medical Research Laboratory, for example, injected himself with cobra venom to see if it would help build up an immunity. Civil War medic William Baer noticed that wounds infected by maggots seemed to heal better, so he bravely introduced them into patients’ wounds in his peacetime practice. Turns out, maggots eat dead tissue, and have since been approved by the FDA as a medical device.

The National Writers Series asked Roach to field some questions before her upcoming event with guest host Benjamin Busch, himself a decorated U.S. Marine veteran.

NWS: You make science so much fun to read and to learn about. What inspired your approach? 

Roach: Fun has always been a priority, because, well, it’s fun. And if I’m having fun reporting and writing, then hopefully the reader will have fun reading. Everybody wins!

NWS: What spurred your interest in the science of humans at war? 

Roach: A visit to the science arm of the Indian defense ministry. I was reporting a story on the world’s hottest chili pepper, which is grown in Nagaland, India. While I was there, someone told me that the Indian military had weaponized the pepper—made an exploding chili powder bomb for dispersing crowds and clearing terrain. After an afternoon at the lab, it occurred to me that military science is a lot more esoteric than I’d imagined. And that this could be an interesting world to step into.

NWS: In GRUNT, you dive deep into topics like wound-healing maggots and the right kind of tissue for penis transplants. Has anything really rattled you?

Roach: For one chapter, I was in the operating room at Walter Reed during an operation to repair a man’s damaged urethra. The next day I spoke to him and asked him to tell me what had happened, the story of the day he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan. Until then, my concept of this sort of thing was based on movies. Hearing it firsthand from someone who lived it was humbling, inspiring, moving and upsetting.

Mary Roach is a New York Times bestselling author of STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, SPOOK: Science Tackles the Afterlife, BONK: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, PACKING FOR MARS: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, and GULP: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. She lives in Oakland, California.

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