In “Grunt,” irreverent science writer Mary Roach examines the science and techniques used by the military to keep its troops healthy, comfortable and combat-ready. Roach discusses her book Wednesday, June 15, at Town Hall Seattle.
‘Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War’
by Mary Roach
Norton, 288 pp., $26.95
Want to tap into a deep well of startling facts about the unlikeliest stuff? Get to know Mary Roach’s work. It is unfailingly lively, articulate, funny as hell and bristling with oddball information.
Roach’s books are models of good popular science writing. One way or another, each stands at the intersection of science and the human body. Among her previous topics: sex (“Bonk”), the alimentary canal (“Gulp”), cadavers (“Stiff”), and life in space (“Packing for Mars” ).
The pithy title of “Grunt” is a little misleading. It is not about infantry. (Or nonverbal sounds made by humans.) The subtitle explains it all: “The Curious Science of Humans at War.”
The author of “Grunt” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 15, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. The ticket price of $31.95 admits two and includes a copy of the book. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. For more information go to townhallseattle.org or call the University Book Store at 206-634-3400.
But anyone looking for insights into, say, calculating ordnance trajectories will be disappointed. Roach, who appears Wednesday, June 15, at Town Hall Seattle, focuses instead on research that makes servicemen and -women healthier, more comfortable and more effective soldiers. And that makes them whole again, physically and mentally, after disaster.
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And so we get chapters on such topics as panic, noise, drowning and sleep deprivation. Some of the topics are both horrible and fascinating — like reconstructive surgery, detailed in terms not for the squeamish.
Other topics are high on the Ick Scale, such as diarrhea. The title of that chapter — “Leaky SEALs” — underlines Roach’s ability to be cheeky about very serious stuff.
Yeah, it is easy to make fun of the runs — but diarrhea is a matter of great, perhaps lifesaving concern to anyone in a critical situation. Even (maybe especially) with distasteful problems, military forces rely on armies of anonymous scientists to find solutions. Roach knows that there is a time to mock, and a time to see that knowledge is power.
Mostly, though, she plays things for laughs, and the raw material is irresistible. Take the guys who fire grocery-store chickens at jets on a runway (to study bird strikes). Or the astonishing World War II-era research into disseminating horrible stinks on a massive scale, as a way to demoralize enemy troops. Not to mention the blast-proof underwear.
Roach often inserts herself in the reporting, like the time she gamely takes part in a test concerning heat sickness — even though it requires wearing a thermometer in a very, very intimate place.
(Roach does not always get such firsthand experience. Her request to drive a Stryker is politely declined, though she does get to sit in the driver’s seat. Presumably while turning the wheel and going “vroom, vroom.”)
Sometimes “Grunt’s” footnotes are as entertaining and informative as the text. In one example, while discussing the use of maggots to heal infection (no, really), Roach helpfully provides the Medicare reimbursement code for maggot therapy.
She also uncovers some excellent words. My favorite: “splanchnic,” which refers to the organs of the abdomen. If I ever form a band, I am totally calling it The Splanchnics.
Alas, she declines to elaborate on some of the very farthest-out edges of her subject. Instead, she tortures us with mere passing references. Night-vision eye implants? Surgically implanted gills? Details, we need details!
To get those, we’ll have to wait for the next brilliant book.