Mary Roach is not a scientist. She does not have a degree in science. Yet Roach has managed to establish herself as one of the country’s leading science writers.
Roach attracted widespread attention for her book Packing for Mars, in which she debunked what she calls “two delightfully absurd Internet hoaxes” about NASA supposedly funding research into astronauts having sex in space on their missions. One of them, she discovered, was an all-male mission.
“That would have been pretty brave of NASA to be looking into homosexual sex positions with government funding,” she says.
For a while, Roach found herself in an unlikely position as the nation’s go-to expert on astronaut sex—interviewed on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, NPR’s Fresh Air and others—even though she says there’s not all that much to say about the topic.
“I never got anyone to admit to actually doing it,” she says. “So there’s not much of a story there.”
So how did a girl from New Hampshire—with a bachelor’s in psychology—become a preeminent popular science journalist?
This is Mary Roach’s story.
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Growing up, I had a very dichotomous, split personality. I lived in New Hampshire and my parents taught at Dartmouth. They were very much in the world of Ivy League. They weren’t snooty because they were very poorly paid.
My mother was forty-four when I was born, a devout Catholic who supposedly had a blocked fallopian tube. My father was sixty-five. Six years had passed between my brother and I, so I guess you could say I was a surprise. My father, being in his seventies and eighties, probably didn’t have the energy to throw a ball around with me.
I spent more time with my next-door neighbors than with my own parents. The neighbors would do this awful thing where they would put a firecracker down a frog’s throat and light it. We’d have a contest to see who could find the biggest part of the frog.
My parents didn’t talk to our frog-blowing-up, chicken-head-chopping-off, snowmobile-riding, rifle-shooting neighbors.
I didn’t care. I felt at home in both these worlds.
I wasn’t academically worked up about science, but I still spent all my time outdoors in the natural world. I remember watching frog ’s eggs turn into tadpoles and picking them up.
We would ride bikes outside during that time of dusk when it was just a little bit dark. There was just always something new.
We’d go out and catch fireflies. We were endlessly absorbed by this little world around us. It was just this magical time. I was very much out in science.
My friend Becky and I would do these…well, they weren’t really science projects. We had one we called The Potted Meat Project.
It was winter and we did all these different things with potted meat sandwiches. We’d hang little sandwiches from the trees. We’d bury one in the snow. Then we’d go out and look for animal tracks. We had little field notebooks. I think I was always enamored of the lifestyle of science, but not the precision and not the data taking.
I guess you could say I was a tomboy. I had realistic plastic horses. And toy dinosaurs from the natural history museum on the campus as Dartmouth. I would name all the dinosaurs.
I didn’t really play with dolls. One kid gave me a Barbie doll once and I did this thing where I’d pull the head off and I’d say, “I have ten seconds to get the head back on or she DIES.” Now, if you could put a head back on, you certainly would have that kind of time pressure. So it was kind of a foreshadowing, I guess, of my future career.
In elementary school, I wrote a graphic novel and illustrated it with magic marker. It was supposed to be The Book of Penguins, but I spelled it wrong. Instead it says: “The Book of Peguins.”
A penguin goes to the supermarket and he goes skating and he makes dinner. And then he takes a bath. I stapled it together. I had another one, too: The Book of Bugs. I still have them somewhere.
I’m sure you would have called me nerdy. I have a lot of memories of science class. I had a science teacher who kept a pet monkey in the classroom.
My high school physics teacher, Mr. Dumont, was a wonderful, funny, adorable teacher, and of course everybody had a crush on him, including me. I did really well in high school physics and I retained all that information.
When I wrote Packing for Mars, I still remembered how orbits worked. I remembered the two opposing forces of gravitational pull and inertia and how you would calculate the vectors to figure out an orbit.
Certain books made an impact on me. The Little Prince is one. It isn’t even a science book but it’s a way of looking at the world.
Harriet the Spy was another. And Pippi Longstocking. These characters weren’t scientists, but they were independent, quirky girls going out and pursuing their own cool things. They were role models for me.
In third grade, my friend Heidi and I would go outside and sneak around and look in people’s windows. We wanted to be spies. It brought out a sense of adventure and wanting to not just read about it, but DO it.
But I think that’s partially how childhood went back then. You were a self-basting turkey.
I think children today develop different strengths. I think there is this wealth of information in an iPad, but if you haven’t sparked some curiosity from being outside and actually finding a potato bug and wondering “What is this?”—if you didn’t find the real potato bug—how do you then know to be looking up a potato bug on an iPad?
These days, “Mythbusters” is a wonderful show for young girls. It makes you realize that science is the world around you. Science is your life. Science is your body. Science is your backyard. Science isn’t some dry thing in a book. Everyone should follow Chris Hadfield on Twitter (@Cmdr_Hadfield), an astronaut who has been posting really cool zero-gravity videos from space.
Generally, the Internet drives me nuts, the ease with which people accept things as fact. I try to stay off the Internet with the exception of looking for something in particular—things that are published in journals.
Because I don’t have an advanced degree in science, when I am talking to scientists, I sometimes experience a certain amount of anxiety about being able to get it right. Sometimes, I think that I’ve understood something and I actually have some element of it wrong. Maybe I’ve left out something in the core foundation that plays into it. Science is incredibly complex.
Occasionally, I get emails from readers saying things like: “I really enjoyed the book but on page seventeen, a SCUBA tank doesn’t have oxygen, it has air.” We use that information to make the paperback better. I appreciate that input from people. My readers are very respectful.
Sometimes, science reporting really is a slog. I could see myself writing a memoir one day. It would be fun to sit down and get through those memories.
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Kyria Abrahams is a writer and photographer living in Astoria, Queens, and the author of “I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed—Tales From A Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing (Touchstone, 2009).”
MacKenzie Haley is an illustrator working out of Louisville, Kentucky. In her down time, she enjoys running, fostering cats, reading and small objects with movable parts. She is currently banned from buying any more clothing with cats on it.
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