Book Review: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Sci has very little shame when it comes to certain things. Book procurement is one of them, and when she found out that Mary Roach (the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex) was coming out with another book, she had no hesitation in going right to the source and sending a polite begging letter (with remarkably little fan-girling) asking for a review copy.
And when it arrived in the mail, Sci may not may not have danced around a little. And she definitely put aside everyone else she was reading and pounced on the book (sorry, guys).
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach.
packing for mars.jpg

First, I have to admit something. Sci…is not that interesting in space. I’m sorry, all my dear guys at Bad Astronomy and Starts with a Bang and Science After Sunclipse! I love you guys. I just…am not very interested in astronomy. I mean, it’s ok. Sci likes stargazing as much as anyone. But give me some chugging little cells (or better yet, some firing little neurons!) and Sci is a happy woman.
So I wasn’t too enthused when I picked up this book, because…well, it wasn’t about something that sparked my interest.
But it sure as heck does now! This is Mary Roach we are talking about, and her easy, conversational, informative, and entertaining style would probably make for a fun encyclopedia. Space? That’s easy.

(To boldly split infinitives no man has split before…)
Pretty soon I was laughing aloud and reading bits of it to Mr. S, who put up with this with his usual charm and panache. He also now has the book.
So what’s the book about exactly? Well, it’s about…packing for Mars. The chapters focus on various aspects of being an astronaut, from how they are selected (paper cranes in Japan. Really) to the psychology of being in space, to the psychology of being stuck with two other people for weeks, to the physiology of taking a crap…IN SPACE. There are sections on gravity, food in space, and of course, motion sickness in space.
Ms. Roach is never remiss in her research, and interviewed numerous current and retired astronauts and scientists. Her book also includes a full reference list, and a large number of footnotes (read ALL of the footnotes. You won’t be sorry). The references are worth it in and of themselves, and I will be mining her list for all it’s worth for Friday Weird Science. “Physiologic response to subgravity: initiation of micturation”. That’s Weird Science GOLD (but seriously, NASA?! You’re tax funded. Make all of your stuff available on Pubmed, like a good govt agency should. kthxbai).
You might worry that maybe such a lighthearted telling would make what astronauts (and the scientists who make it possible) do for a living seem silly. But really, it does nothing but increase your admiration. You’re up there, in a tiny, tiny room, in the VOID, studying science, and pooping in a BAG?! I’m impressed. Rather than make it seem silly (though some of the stuff IS silly), it draws attention to the things that people will put up with to follow their passion for science and exploration, and to make the seemingly impossible, possible.
While the topics bounce around, and sometimes get a trifle confused, the reader is never lost. Mary Roach covers life in space with all of her usual wit and vivacity, and you really feel as though you’re having a fascinating (though weird) conversation over coffee. Her enthusiasm for her subject is contagious. And it makes for a wonderfully memorable book. Sci was talking to Laelaps just the other day, and he mentioned No-Rinse Shampoo. The first thing I thought was “HEY! They do that in SPACE!” I have also mentioned numerous space incidents at parties. With the parties Sci goes to, this makes her wildly popular. And for the first time in my life, I might actually watch NASA TV. Thanks, Mary Roach!

One Response

  1. […] of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex): Packing for Mars, about life in […]

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