Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

I’ve just finished reading another masterpiece by one of my favorite authors, Mary Roach. She’s a science writer and a New York Times bestseller, and one amazing researcher! Myself a writer, and as someone who geeks out on research and fascinating fun facts, I really admire her books and the enormous amount of time she must put into her works. You rock, Ms. Roach!

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Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal takes the reader on a journey through their own bodies. You put something in your mouth, you chew it up and swallow, and then it follows a path until it reaches the far side. It seems pretty simple, we do this everyday. What makes this book so fascinating however, is the breakdown of that journey…

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Did you know that the pet food you buy might be manufactured to please you, more than be what your pet needs? Did you know about the antibacterial and antiviral properties in your saliva?

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Do you know whether or not a goldfish could survive in your stomach if you swallowed one? Do you know what would happen to you if you were swallowed by a whale, like Jonah in the Bible?

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Do you know what terrible things happen to people who swallow drugs to smuggle them? Do you know what lengths prison inmates will go to, to smuggle items in their bodies?

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Do you know what would happen if you overate in gross quantity at one sitting? Do you know how life-threatening it is to walk past a manure pit? Do you know what a fecal transplant is and why it’s a miracle?

I didn’t either, until I read this book.

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Now, I must preface, Mary Roach’s books are not for the weak of stomach (ha-ha). The face above is the look I perpetually have as I read them. First, you’ve got to have your thinking cap on. Her books are science books, though she does an excellent job of breaking things down so that the topics are digestible (tee-hee). Her wit also makes the difficult concepts easy to swallow (giggle)…

But further, her books have a visceral affect. When I read her Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, I was jumpy and nervous whenever I picked up the book, like a ghost was lurking near. And when I read her Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, I perpetually had vertigo and became terrified of space. While reading Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, my gag reflex was constantly on high alert and I had difficulty eating my lunch.

This isn’t to dissuade you from reading her works, it’s more of a “Put your seatbelt on, you’re going for a wild science reading ride. Weeee!”

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Next up, Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and…

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Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Because it seems I like getting my brain scrambled by science, and learning about things that freak me out! Read one of Mary Roach’s books and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Here’s to the great wonders to be found in a book, and to learning something new, each and every day!

A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel

I’ve just completed A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention by Matt Richtel. This book tells of the moving aftermath of a very serious car accident that occurred in Utah in 2006. Early one September morning, a young man was texting in his vehicle on the way to his job painting houses…

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With each text while negotiating slippery roads, the young man’s car veered into the oncoming lane and back again, as witnessed by another driver. It was during one of these moments of inatention and moving into another lane that the young man clipped an oncoming vehicle…

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Within moments, two men from this other vehicle lost their lives. They were both husbands, fathers, scientists and had many years ahead of them…

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Richtel’s book was not only emotional to read, but it also challenged me to ponder such things as the process of lawmaking, society’s differing viewpoints on policy, technology, and the human brain’s ability to keep up with our very fast-paced world…

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Ten years after that terrible accident, we have laws in place about texting and driving, as well as for the general use of phones in a vehicle. It now seems too, common sense to put your phone away while driving. But most of us would be telling a fib if we said we hadn’t broken these laws now and again (checking a text, taking a call), if not perpetually. Further, this accident was only one of many that has been caused by distracted driving while using a phone. People continue to lose their lives, over a text message…

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Deadly Wandering illustrates with more than emotion, but also science, how using your phone while driving isn’t the same as changing the station on the radio. It distracts attention on a whole other level, with risks comparable to driving while intoxicated…

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I’d encourage anyone to read this book for its applicability to our daily life. Not only does it take us through one story of family and loss that helped forge important driving laws, but it is also highly enlightening while discussing our adaptations to a world of technology. Alternate chapters will require either a tissue in hand (the personal story part), or your thinking caps tied on tight (the brain science part)…

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Whether or not you pick up a copy however, the main point of this narrative is to remind each of us to put our phones away when we drive. Be good to others, be good to yourself. My dinosaur-aged flip phone will certainly remain at the bottom of my purse with the spare bobby pins and pennies while I’m on the road; Richtel’s tale has certainly seen to that!

Abducted & Packing For Mars

I love books that strike my mind, challenge my intellect and make me look at the world differently. I’ve just finished Abducted: How People Come To Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens by Susan Clancy and Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach, and my brain has officially turned to pudding…

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These two books are completely different, but I’m sharing them together as both challenged my mind about what’s out there. I seriously dig science fiction, the wonders of outer space, pondering the possibility of alien life and what people are seeing in the skies…

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No matter my fascinations or beliefs on these topics however, one thing is for certain; I’d never want to experience it for myself. If alien life exists, I’d be too overwhelmed to meet it. And if I had the chance to travel into space, I’d never go. My feet steadfastly cling to my beloved Earth…

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I’ve always felt this way, but let’s just say Packing for Mars solidified my inclinations of terror toward space travel. Mary Roach is a brilliant writer. I also read her Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife last month and am thoroughly impressed by her writing style, the considerable research she can make palatable and her hilarious wit!

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Packing For Mars shares insight into the immense undertaking that is going on right now, to prepare for human launches to the ‘red planet’. Roach takes the reader through initial space exploration (American chimps and trained dogs from Russia being rocketed past the earth’s atmosphere in capsules) on through the many great trials that eventually brought men to the moon, and what advances have come since…

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Primarily however, this book is about what inconveniences, physical tortures, wild unknowns and abject fears astronauts must face when leaving earth. Every page I turned, I felt a sort of motion sickness and uneasiness, even though I wasn’t moving and all was safe and sound…

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Astronauts are up against cramped, airtight spaces, causing instant claustrophobia. Radiation is ever present beyond earth’s atmosphere, penetrating right through the vessel, making cancers in their futures a heightened possibility. Zero gravity brings with it, many human inconveniences and can harm the human body with long-term exposure. Leaving earth and re-entering the atmosphere are incredibly dangerous feats and every minute of space travel can become life-threatening from one minute to the next…NO THANKS!

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So why go? Why not just send more and more technology out into space to gather information, and keep humans safe where they belong? The only practical reason I gathered from this narrative seems to be that no matter how advanced technology becomes, humans have skills that only a human can have (such as being alive, cognizant of their past, having an understanding of place, time and feelings). Humans can problem solve in ways technology can’t, and can bring back information that is felt/experienced, rather than just ‘collected’. Further, for a human to have lived it, seems to be the undying purpose and pride in exploration…

But, what do I know? I prefer to stay at home where it’s cozy!

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However, according to Clancy’s Abducted, lots of folks don’t seem so cozy at home, believing they are being visited (and even abducted) by strangers not of this planet. Eeekk!

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Abducted isn’t necessarily an argument for or against the possibility of alien life though. Published by Harvard University Press (and its author being one highly educated psychologist hailing from that esteemed university), the book approaches this surreal topic far differently than I expected. It takes a look deep into the human mind.

After interviewing a great many “abductees”, Clancy makes the claim that abductions are all in peoples’ heads. Yet, her text doesn’t conclude that “abductees” are crazy. Rather, it leaves you reeling as you consider what the human brain is capable of, its depths and what places it can go…

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There is much, much more to both Roach’s Packing For Mars and Clancy’s Abducted than I have shared here. Therefore, if you are interested in any topic of science that these two books cover, I invite you to enjoy the read. If you dare to ride, they are both roller-coasters in book form…wheee!

Woodpeckers Wear Helmets

I had an odd thought the moment I woke up this morning. It was the very first thing to enter my brain when I opened my eyes…

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Usually my first thought is…

“Where’s the coffee!?” or “I’m starving, what am I going to have for breakfast?!” or “Croissants! Cinnamon Toast Crunch! Quiche! Cake! French Fries! Cheese! How should I start the day?”

But not today. Today it was, “How do woodpeckers peck like that without getting a headache?” Yup, that was my first thought. Was there a woodpecker pecking outside to inspire this question? Nope.

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As soon as I could (after eating breakfast and having some coffee of course), I had to look it up. What did I learn?

Most importantly, these little dudes have an odd shaped bone (which looks like a crown that loops around their head) that acts like a safety belt to keep its skull snug in its place. In other species, this bone called the hyoid (much like a natural helmet), does not exist. Check it out here!

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Also important, their skulls are less hard & more flexible than other birds’ (due to the way their skull bones are layered), thus they handle impact better.

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Further, their top beak is longer, while the bottom is shorter and tougher. The bottom beak helps soak in the intense pecking of the top beak!

It is for those reasons that a woodpecker doesn’t need birdie aspirin. Now that I know this, I can officially start my day.

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Woodpecker fun facts!

You may have to squint, but if you look at the tip of the beak on the woodpecker above, you’ll see his tongue. They have very long tongues (up to four inches) and they use them to help capture those delicious bugs they’re pecking for. “Ha-ha you grub! You cannot escape my long tongue!”

Woodpeckers don’t serenade and warble like other birdies. So how do the male woodpeckers attract a girlfriend? They peck out their love calls on hollow objects (like garbage cans, rotton tree trunks, the rain drain on your house). So the next time you wonder why that woodpecker is so silly to be looking for bugs by pecking on the tin of your roof (I’ve had that very thought)…he’s not looking for a meal, he’s looking for a date.

How fast can a woodpecker peck? 20 pecks per second. That’s nuts.

If you look at a woodpecker’s toes, they grow in two directions (front and back) so that they can grip and climb with ease, also using their very strong tail plumage to keep them steady as they perch and peck!

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I’m really glad my honey doesn’t bang on hollow metal garbage cans to get my attention, as woodpeckers do when calling to their girlfriends. I don’t think that would go over very well!