Friday, August 8, 2014

Open Your Piehole and Say Ahhhh

Mary Roach writes about science the way I eat my Chunky Monkey ice-cream. She has a marvelous sense of humor, and could decorate Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree with her myriad factoids. If you enjoyed her previous book Stiff (about cadavers), this follow-up will totally knock your socks off. Again, Roach answers many interesting questions about our innards, and although some of the subjects might’ve seemed dry in Bio 101, our talented author makes you regret the fact that you don’t wear a lab coat to work.

Her chapter “Liver and Opinion” really cuts to the heart of our cultural predilections for food— why we eat what we eat, and why, for example kidneys and liver got packaged under the splendid moniker “variety meats” back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. She gives examples of how cultural food bias can be taken to extremes when on the Burke and Wills expedition in the 1860s, some of the British explorers were so repulsed by what the Australian Aborigines ate that the British explorers ended either getting scurvy or starving to death.

There’s an awesome essay on the Pre-WWI “Chew Freak”, Horace Fletcher, who suggested that efficient mastication could help trim the National Debt. Kafka, apparently was a Fletcherist, and took painstaking efforts to prolong his meals by excessive chewing so much so his father was said to have “hid behind a newspaper at dinnertime to avoid watching the writer Fletcherize”. Today chewing is still an important area of research. Andries van der Bilt leads a research team at the University Medical Center at Utrecht. Mary Roach describes the man as resembling a tooth. To give you an idea of her sense of humor. Van der Bilt spends his days working with comfort putty and experimenting with various aspects of oral physiology. He uses emotion-recognition software to ascertain whether people are happy, sad or ambivalent when they are chomping away at their meals. Did you know that our jaw muscles are the strongest muscles in our body?

Jonah zealots might be put off by the chapter Numero 8 “Big Gulp”, debunking the myths of fisherman surviving after being swallowed alive by whales. Roach deftly notes that it is not simply a matter of “spatial accommodations,” but physiology and chemistry that factors into equation. What about all those gastric juices swishing around inside our big beluga? She also delivers these delightful bon mots “would a man in a whale forestomach be crushed or merely tumbled? No one to my knowledge has measured the contraction strength of the sperm whale forestomach, but someone has measured gizzard squeeze.”

Who should pick up this book? Anybody who is interested in really delicious questions about our masticatory apparatus, anybody doing due diligence before getting their next colonoscopy, and, perhaps, anybody dying to know whether the eaten can eat back? Do you want to know if Elvis died of constipation or more about flatulence research? Roach doesn’t leave any gallstones unturned, this is a thoroughly researched, but highly accessible science book for those that wish Tina Fey or Stephen Colbert would give a diatribe or a treatise on gastroenterology.

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