Roach is not like other science writers. She doesn’t write about genes or black holes or Schrödinger’s cat. Instead, she ventures out to the fringes of science, where the oddballs ponder how cadavers decay (in her debut, Stiff) and whether you can weigh a person’s soul (in Spook). Now she explores the sexiest subject of all: sex, and such questions as, what is an orgasm? How is it possible for paraplegics to have them? What does woman want, and can a man give it to her if her clitoris is too far from her vagina? At times the narrative feels insubstantial and digressive (how much do you need to know about inseminating sows?), but Roach’s ever-present eye and ear for the absurd and her loopy sense of humor make her a delectable guide through this unesteemed scientific outback. The payoff comes with subjects like female orgasm (yes, it’s complicated), and characters like Ahmed Shafik, who defies Cairo’s religious repressiveness to conduct his sex research. Roach’s forays offer fascinating evidence of the full range of human weirdness, the nonsense that has often passed for medical science and, more poignantly, the extreme lengths to which people will go to find sexual satisfaction.
This a truly great tale of a first-hand look at science and sex from both the inside and the outside! Mary Roach provides a humorous and often very personal view–both as a participant and observer–of humans, animals, and mechanical devices: there is much that you would never have imagined, and perhaps would rather never of heard of at all. She and her husband Ed have sex in a 20-inch diameter MRI tube in the interests of science. The doctor looks on, makes suggestions, and finally tells Ed “You may ejaculate now”. The author also recounts the experiments by Kinsey is his attic many years ago and tries to track down the film footage.
The author’s great sense of humor needs to be read to be believed. She spares no one, and particularly not herself or her husband. She travels to Taiwan to watch an implant operation. In one of the funniest parts[and this says a lot, since the book will have you howling a lot] she goes to Denmark to watch artificial insemination of sows. We know this happens with cows, and you might suppose that there’s not much difference with pigs, but you’d be wrong, very wrong indeed. Suffice it to say that the best results occur, when, among other things best not mentioned here, the AI person lies down on the sow’s back and fondles her teats during the process. You may never regard your morning sausage quite the same way again.
The author has a lot of asides that are a delight to read. If you usually skip the footnotes in a book, you’ll miss a lot here. You’ll learn a lot–for all the things that might seem frivolous, but which are not, the book is a scientific one. Roach has a curiosity, an appetite for knowledge, and has the capability that perhaps most scientists do not have, which is to mix science and humor. Stephen Gould was able to do this, but his humor was not as pervasive–his writing is, at a guess, 95% science at 5% humor, whereas with Roach it’s more like 50-50.
Martin Gardner’s great Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science may be the closest similar work to Roach’s book. This book is certainly not for everyone, and there are those who will be deeply offended, but for most it should be a real treat to read!
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