In 'Grunt,' Mary Roach's Look at the Curious Science of War

Sep 21, 2017

Award-winning science writer Mary Roach has taken on some delicate topics with both depth and a large dose of humor in her seven books.  She wrote about human cadavers in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; the afterlife in Spook, Science Tackles the Afterlife, and even sexuality in Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.  But when she comes to speak in Milwaukee next week, her topic will be one that is both steeped in science and bureaucracy.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War takes on the science of the military - from reconstructive surgeries, to ways of protecting a soldier’s hearing, to the military’s effort to find an effective shark repellent.

She explains how she got into the idea of science, the military and wartime: "I was reporting a story in India. It had to do with the world's hottest chili pepper and this crazy chili pepper eating contest. While I was there, somebody said that this chili pepper was weaponized by the Indian Defense Ministry, and I thought 'that's an interesting element on an otherwise straightforward chili pepper story.'"

"So I thought I'd better go to that lab," Roach continues. "It was in the neighboring state of Assam. And I went over there and spoke to these guys who made a pepper spray." She says that's where she stumbled upon people investigating a leech repellent. 

"I couldn't have imagined that there'd be labs where people are devising leech repellent," Roach says. "I thought, 'well that's an interesting world that I might want to step into and poke around,' which is what I do with my life: I step in, I poke around."

Her poking around led her to Djibouti, to take on such messy subjects as troop bowel movement, (and she says that topic is a big deal for the military). "The people who are deployed in places like Yemen or Somalia, particularly special operations, they're out in a village with no access to safe food," Roach explains. "The food may be a goat that hasn't been refrigerated for a few days and water that hasn't been treated. And that's how you get food poisoning, and they get it all the time. And obviously if your special operations team is 2-4 guys, and one of them is out, that's a pretty substantial loss of manpower and assets. That's important."

She'll be speaking at the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Science on Tap lecture series on Thursday September 28.