Alice’s Analysis – Gulp by Mary Roach
I feel I must start with a confession. I love science. It’s dominated my working life and I get to enjoy finding out about new research every day at Nature. But when I’m at home, well, I often reach for a great novel over non-fiction. So I was amazed to find myself eschewing the joys of the latest from the New York Times bestseller list in favour of Gulp and racing through the chapters with the greatest of relish.
Gulp is, without question, the most enjoyable popular science book I’ve ever read (closely followed by Roach’s Packing for Mars, which I also highly recommend). It explores the science of the alimentary canal, taking us from ingestion to excretion, and various points in between. The book seems to cover all the questions a child might ask (or we might if we weren’t too afraid or embarrassed). In order to do so, Roach undertakes the tasks most would baulk at. She discovers what pet food tastes like by tasting it. She finds out how to store drugs in the rectum by interviewing a convicted murderer and contraband smuggler in a California prison. She finds out about the effects of flatulence on others by sniffing the gas from an aged rat turd. (She also tells you how to survive being swallowed alive, but sensibly doesn’t try that one out.)
Roach tackles her subject with enthusiasm. She describes her every experience in vivid detail, from the appearance and mannerisms of the characters she comes across, to her emotional and physical reactions to the bizarre and often unpleasant experiments she inflicts upon herself. The point at which she describes herself as surprised that few others have asked to try the pyrophosphates – “cat crack” – that pet food companies coat their food pellets in, left me both snorting with suppressed giggles and with a very real image of two women sitting in an office bent over bottles of feline narcotics. Woven into her personal escapades is a historical narrative, dipping back into the extraordinary experiments of the past with great verve: it’s clear that Roach has done her research.
Roach’s humour springs from every page and I found myself with a constant smile on my face. Her language is enormously evocative and often complete with the ‘eew’ factor – her description of an Arctic char eyeball as having “fat and connective tissue dangling off the back like wiring on a headlamp” immediately gave a mental image I’ve not quite shaken. I even found myself enjoying the footnotes – something I’ve never really done before – with charming vignettes and humorous anecdotes supplanting the traditional over-wordy explanations you so often find yourself squinting to read at the bottom of a page.
Gulp is not obviously a popular science book. It’s more like a romp through the bizarre and peculiar, supplemented with history and personal anecdote, suffused with science and seasoned with tongue-in-cheek humour. And it could not be more fun.
Alice Henchley has been Head of Press at Nature since the start of 2013. Prior to that, she worked at the Royal Society and the Zoological Society of London, communicating everything from population policy to conservation of the world’s most extraordinary animals.