Weird science: author Mary Roach comes to Bend

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Graphic by Spencer Light | The Broadside (Contact: slight@cocc.edu)

By Tim Neville | The Broadside (Contact: tneville2@cocc.edu)

In case you were ever wondering, the hardest part about shrinking a head — as in “a shrunken head” — isn’t making it small, but taking the skin off it first. Another random fact: when you die, there’s a company in Florida that will send your ashes up in a helium balloon for miles over the earth, where the cold pops the balloon and sends your remains over the better portion of a continent. One thing you probably shouldn’t ask Mary Roach about is that bowl of “medical maggots” she first mistook for pudding.

Roach is the author of six books and numerous articles for magazines like Outside and National Geographic, and her specialty is diving into the kind of science you wish your high school teachers had taught. Cadavers. Ghosts. The science of keeping people alive. She has learned how to shrink heads and reported from laboratories where scientists study sex.

“Some people would say the topics I pick are taboo or gross but it’s not either of those,” she said in a phone interview from her home in California. “It’s stuff that falls between the cracks.”

Central Oregon Community College students and faculty will have the chance to hear Roach speak about the fascinating world she’s found riffling through those cracks at 7 p.m. on Jan. 27 at the Bend High Auditorium. That’s when the latest installment of the Deschutes Public Library’s Author! Author! lecture series will kick off.

The library gives COCC about 30 free tickets to students and COCC faculty on a first-come, first-serve basis. You can get up to two tickets by bringing a student ID to the information desk outside the student government office in the Coats Campus Center. Typically, the library will give COCC the free tickets about a month before the event, said Emily Fitch, who staffs the Coats Campus Center information desk. For the Jan. 27 event, Roach will join Oregon Public Broadcasting’s April Baer on stage for a one-on-one interview. Tickets for non-students are $25.

The series, organized by the Deschutes Public Library Foundation, brings successful, often best-selling authors to Bend to discuss their work and the methods behind their writing. Other speakers still to come our way this year include Elizabeth Strout and Colson Whitehead. You can find the full schedule for upcoming events online at dplfoundation.org or by calling 541-312-1027.

Roach, who grew up in New Hampshire and started her career working in public relations before becoming a full-time author, said she’ll likely talk about her newest book, “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War”, which looks at research being done to help soldiers overcome combat hardships like fear, panic and exhaustion. Roach dives into these serious topics with an eye for irreverent humor. For instance, Roach learned one of the best ways to clean a wound on or off the battlefield is to pack it with maggots. “They eat only dead tissue,” she said. “You can actually get a prescription for them.”

Roach’s other books include “Packing for Mars”, which delves into the ways scientists and researchers are using “quizzical and startlingly bizarre space simulations” to prepare humans for extended space travel. She shows readers what happens when astronauts vomit into their space helmets. She explains the toll that zero-gravity can take on the body.

Readers even learn how the restroom on the Space Shuttle works. “Every writer has things they get excited about and make them run around the room,” she said.

The book reached No. 6 on the New York Times bestselling list. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show called it ‘hilarious’.  

Roach will spend three years sometimes producing a single book, but if there’s anything she would like to tell aspiring writers, it is to keep some perspective. “I wish I had known that writing a book is not as daunting of an idea as it sounds,” she said. “You need a good idea, a writing sample and a proposal with a sample chapter. If someone thinks they can make money off of it, off you go.” ■

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