Mary Roach: A “Gateway Drug” for Science
Mary Roach, best-selling author of Grunt, Stiff, and several other books, has a gift for finding engaging science stories where you’d least expect them. Be it the science behind the design of fabrics and fasteners used in combat uniforms or the challenge of engineering a toilet for astronauts, Roach uses her curiosity and infectious humor to grab the reader and lead them on a scientific journey. Her work dives into the oddest corners of science, from sex to the military and much in between.
ESA president Susan Weller, Ph.D., invited Roach to Entomology 2017 to share how she ignites her readers’ interest in seemingly obscure topics. And who better to interview Roach about science writing than entomologist and science writer Gwen Pearson? Pearson—who has written about the deadly farts of termite-eating lacewings and the mites that live in your facial pores—shares Roach’s knack for finding an irresistible hook that pulls the reader into real science.
On Sunday evening, Pearson sat down with Roach at the Opening Plenary session of Entomology 2017 and asked about her writing process, scientific writing through history, and her most memorable insect encounter.
Pearson asked Roach for her advice to scientists who are working with a writer or speaking with journalists. “Be patient,” said Roach, who jokes that she sometimes refers to the scientists she interviews as her “victims” because she asks them to serve as a sort of unpaid tutor. Roach, who doesn’t have formal science training and covers a broad range of topics, says that she sometimes has to ask scientists to back way up and explain the basics of their field. But her perspective as a non-expert in the field allows her see what angle will serve as a good hook for readers and what background information they will need to understand it. “Try to think about what might be interesting to a 7th grader,” said Roach.
In researching for her books, Roach has worked with a lot of historical material including research papers from as far back as the 1600s. Pearson asked Roach how scientific writing has changed through the centuries.
Roach: “It’s changed a lot. … if you look back at the articles from the 1700s or 1800s, there’s less structure. … It’s sometimes very lyrical. Even going back to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek—the microscope dude—there’s a sense of wonder conveyed from his original descriptions of what he called “animalcules.” Just imagine the first time looking at the creatures in a puddle, and seeing there’s this whole universe there. That comes through in his writing, which was some of the most technical writing for its day.
Pearson: “Now we’re supposed to be very technical. … I feel like we’ve lost some of that beauty and excitement that used to be in the older scientific writing.”
When asked how she finds her topics, Roach said she looks for the stories that fall through the cracks and jokes that she’s “the bottom-feeder of science writing.” Along those lines, she encourages scientists who want to get their stories out to reach out to science writers directly. “They love to hear from scientists doing interesting things … not just from a press release” she explained, because press releases go out to every science outlet and may be old news.
Roach also fielded questions from the audience, including if she had any plans to write an insect-themed book. Sadly, the answer to that question is no. Roach explained that she finds entomology fascinating and often slips bits of insect science into her books on other topics, but that other writers have already produced excellent popular science books on the topic.
Still, she shared her favorite insect—which is not the roach. “I’m a big weevil fan,” she said. She finds these beetles visually appealing and loves saying weevil: “it’s just a good word”.
Her most memorable arthropod encounter? Trying her hand at fishing for termites like a chimpanzee and eating a live soldier termite. That painful, and surprisingly bland tasting, experience was immortalized on video by National Geographic.
Roach says she hopes that her work acts like a “gateway drug for science” and said she is most proud when a scientist or medical professional tells her that her writing sparked their interest in science. But, even if you are already a scientist or science enthusiast, Roach’s books are addictive reads, virtually guaranteed to get you chuckling and wondering about a scientific problem you’ve never considered.
Meredith Swett Walker is a former avian endocrinologist who now studies the development and behavior of two juvenile humans in the high desert of western Colorado. When she is not handling her research subjects, she writes about science and nature. You can read her work on her blogs Pica Hudsonia and The Citizen Biologist or follow her on Twitter at @mswettwalker.