The science of humans at war

A Q&A with Portsmouth-bound science writer and humorist Mary Roach

UPDATE: Due to a schedule change, Mary Roach’s event at The Music Hall has been canceled. 

“Stiff” is about the use of human cadavers in science. “Spook” investigates the possibility of the afterlife. “Bonk” is about the science of sex. And “Gulp” concerns the passage of food through the body.

Mary Roach, the bestselling author of these and other nonfiction books, specializes in pop-science explorations of curious topics that ooze with humor. She just published her latest monosyllabic title: “Grunt,” which she’ll present at The Music Hall in Portsmouth as part of the Writers on a New England Stage series on June 30. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Roach, who grew up in western New Hampshire.

The full title of the new book is “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.” It explores the ways in which military scientists and surgeons strive to keep soldiers safe and sane in incredibly adverse circumstances. In her research, Roach took a whiff of military-grade stink paste and even allowed medical maggots — used to clean and heal wounds — to cavort on her fingertip.

Interactive research is nothing new for Roach. When she was writing “Bonk,” she and her husband volunteered to have sex while wearing ultrasound equipment so that a scientist could capture real-time images for a study. She brings a spirit of adventurous curiosity to all her work.

In advance of the event in Portsmouth, we talked to Roach by phone about her research methods and her latest book.

You’ve written about a number of subjects that might make the average person squirm. How do you choose the subjects of your books?

Oh, it differs from book to book. I’m usually looking for a little science and something that lends itself to a humorous treatment, at least in places, because that’s fun for me and for the reader. And a little bit of history in the mix is always nice. So anything that can bring those elements all into the mix, that’s what I’m looking for.

Specifically with “Grunts,” how did you get interested in this aspect of war?

I got interested in military science, not really that specific angle of it, but I was reporting a story in India on the world’s hottest chili pepper, which, in the course of reporting, I found out that the Indian Defence Ministry had turned into a nonlethal weapon. They created (something) similar to a pepper spray, but it was like a powder. So I had to report on that, so I went over to the lab where they had done that work and spent the day there. They were working on a number of esoteric things, including a leach repellent, and that was kind of where I got the idea that military science might be a good area for me to explore.

Shortly thereafter, I heard from a retired Army pathologist who had read one of my books, and I happened to mention to him that I was kind of thinking that perhaps this would be an interesting area to explore. I had an email correspondence with him and he was very encouraging, because I had assumed that access would be a big problem, and he introduced me to a number of people and kind of got the wheels rolling. So those two things kind of led to this topic.

“… the surgeon mentioned some cadaver work going on as part of the prep for the first U.S. penis transplant, so I’m like, ‘Welp, gotta cover that.’”

How did the various chapters of this book come into focus? I mean, did you know from the outset that you wanted to write about shark repellent, for instance, or did this just come up during the course of your research?

(Laughs.) So, often I’d go one place and while I was there someone would mention something else. For example, the chapter on genital reconstruction — while I was there, the surgeon mentioned some cadaver work going on as part of the prep for the first U.S. penis transplant, so I’m like, “Welp, gotta cover that.” And while I was in Dover at the military morgue, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System (at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware), they told me originally about a project to develop a crash test dummy for under-body blasts, so that became a chapter. The shark repellent chapter came out of a conversation with a Navy historian who’d been really helpful with the chapter on “Who Me,” the World War II stink paste. … So that was usually how it happened rather than me researching on the Internet. It was often people mentioning things. People are a great resource.

Is there anything that jumps out as something that you were really surprised to learn about war or preparation for war?

Oh, I guess just the scope of the science. There are whole disciplines I’d never heard of, like military entomology. I had no idea that such a thing existed. Also, I had no idea some of the breadth of the work. A lot of times it’s stuff you don’t really associate with war, like infectious disease and diarrhea, or vaccines, or something like the chicken gun for bird strike for making jet canopies safer. So I was constantly surprised because I just had a very limited knowledge of the work that went on.

“They’ve got amputee actors with latex gore sleeves on their stump and a backpack with pumping blood. I mean, it’s really intense.”

Something that’s really difficult to fathom for those of us who have never been in a war is how soldiers cope with the shock of witnessing carnage all around them. How does the military approach this process of trying to prepare a person to keep their cool during that type of experience?

Specifically for combat medics — Navy Corpsmen who are the medics for the Marine Corps — they have a very specific way of dealing with that, which is they have these simulations. I went to one at a former movie studio outside San Diego called Strategic Operations, and … they call it “hyper-realistic,” and it actually is. They’ve got a pyrotechnics person. They’re playing on the speakers the soundtrack to “Saving Private Ryan,” which you don’t know that that’s what it is, but it’s quite intense. And they’ve got amputee actors with latex gore sleeves on their stump and a backpack with pumping blood. I mean, it’s really intense.

And they are preparing them not just psychologically, but because when you have a lot of adrenaline coursing through you — the fight or flight response is great if you need to run away or climb a tree or throw a rock. But if you need to stay focused and operate complicated medical equipment, the last thing you want is that fight or flight response … the quote I was told is it makes people “fast, strong, and dumb.” It doesn’t help you for that environment. So … the concept is stress inoculation. If you can get somebody used to it in a safe environment but a scary environment, hopefully they’ll be a little better prepared when the real deal comes along. How much difference that makes is really hard to quantify, but it certainly can’t hurt. So just exposing people to some level of the gore and intensity and noise and mayhem is one way to do that. But I don’t think you could ever totally prepare someone for that.

“I mean, that’s what appeals to me, something that most people dismiss as gross is in fact kind of heroic and useful.”

Can you think of a time during your research, whether with “Grunt” or another book, when you just got really grossed out or uncomfortable and had difficulty going through with it?

Yes, uncomfortable — that would be “Bonk.” … It’s a book about scientists that study sexual physiology, and I wanted to get at that very awkward experience of being a subject, like in a scenario similar to what Masters and Johnson had done, which was bringing couples actually into the lab. … There was one study that I wanted to observe and they couldn’t find subjects, and they of course said, “If your organization would like to find a couple…” (l