A touchy topic illuminated with wit and rigor, packed with all the stinky details.

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GULP

ADVENTURES ON THE ALIMENTARY CANAL

Throughout her sojourn down the gastrointestinal tract, science writer Roach (Packing for MarsThe Curious Science of Life in the Void, 2011, etc.) enlists her abundant assets of intelligence and humor while dissecting this messy and astounding part of the human body.

The author ties her curiosity about this region of the body and what many consider a disgusting or off-limits subject for polite conversation to a fifth-grade classroom encounter with a headless, limbless, molded-plastic torso: “Function was not hinted at in Mrs. Claflin’s educational torso man….Yet I owe the guy a debt of thanks. To venture beyond the abdominal wall, even a plastic one, was to pull back the curtain on life itself.” The author begins by detailing the subtle, complex role the nose plays in taste; why humans have trouble finding names for flavors and smells; and how the human nose can be thought of as a “fleshly gas chromatograph.” Roach chronicles her visit to an oral processing lab and her interview with a prisoner who patiently explained the intimate details of utilizing the alimentary canal for illegal purposes. The author grapples with the history of flatulence and adeptly describes the torment caused by Elvis Presley’s megacolon, which ultimately caused his demise. She also fleshes out just what constitutes the “ick factor” in this tale of ingestion, digestion and elimination. Roach’s abundant footnotes serve as entertaining detours throughout this edifying excursion. When a topic heads toward sketchy territory, the author politely provides a heads-up for squeamish readers. Whether Roach is writing about lateral tongue protrusion, the taboo surrounding saliva or whether “rectal consumption of beef broth breaks one’s Lenten fast,” the author entertains with this incredible journey into the netherworld of the human body.

A touchy topic illuminated with wit and rigor, packed with all the stinky details.

Pub Date: April 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0393081572

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2013

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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