Mary Roach

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Mary Roach
MaryRoach smile.JPG
Mary Roach, 2005
Born (1959-03-20) March 20, 1959 (age 56)
Etna, New Hampshire
Occupation Author (non-fiction); humorist
Nationality American
Genre Popular science, humor

Mary Roach is an American author, specializing in popular science and humor.[1] As of 2014, she has published six books: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) (published in some markets as Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010), My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places, and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013).

Roach is noted for her curiosity and humor in addition to her research.[2] Her many humor-laced articles in various publications over the decades include her monthly humor column, "My Planet", in Reader's Digest.

Early life and education[edit]

Mary Roach was born in Hanover, New Hampshire, to a 65-year-old father.[3] Her family later moved to Etna, New Hampshire, where Roach attended Hanover High School.

She received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Wesleyan University in 1981.


Picture used on the cover of Bonk, a book written by Mary Roach

After college, Roach moved to San Francisco, California and spent a few years working as a freelance copy editor. She worked as a columnist and also worked in public relations for a brief time. Her writing career began while working part-time at the San Francisco Zoological Society, producing press releases on topics such as wart surgery on elephants. On her days off from the SFZS, she wrote freelance articles for the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine.[4]

In 1986, she sold a humor piece about the IRS to the San Francisco Chronicle. That piece led to a number of humorous, first-person essays and feature articles for such publications as Vogue, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Discover Magazine, National Geographic, Outside Magazine, and Wired.[5][6] She has also written articles for and tech-gadget reviews for

From 1996 to 2005 Roach was part of "the Grotto", a San Francisco-based project and community of working writers and filmmakers. It was in this community that Roach got the push she needed to break into book writing.[7] While being interviewed by Alex C. Telander of BookBanter, Roach answered the question of how she got started on her first book:

A few of us every year [from the Grotto] would make predictions for other people, where they'll be in a year. So someone made the prediction that, 'Mary will have a book contract.' I forgot about it and when October came around I thought, I have three months to pull together a book proposal and have a book contract. This is what literally lit the fire under my butt.[8]

Although Roach writes primarily about science, she never intended to make it her career. Roach stated in an interview with when asked what exactly got her hooked on writing about science, "To be honest, it turned out that science stories were always, consistently, the most interesting stories I was assigned to cover. I didn’t plan it like this, and I don't have a formal background in science, or any education in science journalism. Actually I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology."[9]

TV and radio shows have repeatedly asked Roach to appear as a guest so they could hear her opinions. She has appeared on programs like Coast to Coast AM,[10] The Daily Show,[11] and The Colbert Report.[12] Roach has had monthly columns in Reader's Digest ("My Planet") and Sports Illustrated for Women ("The Slightly Wider World of Sports").[5]

Besides being a best-selling author, Roach is involved in many other projects on the side. Roach reviews books for The New York Times, and was the guest editor of the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 edition. She also serves as a member of the Mars Institute's Advisory Board, as an ambassador for Mars One[13] and was recently asked to join the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.[14]

Research methods[edit]

Roach floats weightlessly on a parabolic flight while researching Packing For Mars

While it is clear that Roach has a wide variety of somewhat unusual interests, her interest is not limited to observation alone. She volunteered herself and her husband in an MRI coital imaging experiment to study the effects of cuddling.[15] While researching material for her book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Roach came across Dr. Jing Deng, a University College London Medical School senior lecturer in medical physics. Dr. Deng was experimenting with 4-D ultrasound imaging and was in need of test subjects to engage in sexual intercourse while wearing the ultrasound equipment so that real-time images could be captured.[16] Roach and her husband, Ed, were the first participants to volunteer in this study. When asked how she was able to convince her husband to participate, Roach said, "He’s crazy supportive. It was much harder for him. It was nothing for me. I was just a receptacle. I was just taking notes."[17]

Working with sensory analyst Sue Langstoff she studied beer taste-testing methods used in detecting impurities.[18] She has followed meteorite hunter Ralph Harvey all the way up in polar regions of the world to study space debris and uncover clues about their space origins.[19] She has also consulted neuromuscular expert Dr Van der Bilt to analyze the complex ability of the human jaw to break down food and protect the mouth while chewing food.[20] To study the reproductive effect of sexual arousal in pigs she studied a pig researcher's experimentation techniques in order to identify if there was a positive correlation between stimulation and quantity of offspring.[15]

Roach has been to Antarctica a few times as part of the National Science Foundation Polar Program. In 1997 she visited Antarctica to write an article for Discover Magazine on meteorite hunting with meteorite hunter Ralph Harvey.[19][21] She has joined environmental photojournalist and writer Gary Braasch on a trip to Antarctica to uncover clues about global warming.[22]

Writing style[edit]

Roach, holding a cat head
Roach on a children's mechanical horse ride (2005)

While Roach does not possess a science degree, she attempts to take complex ideas and turn them into something that the average reader can understand. She takes the reader with her through the steps of her research, from learning about the material to getting to know the people who study it, as she described in a public dialog with Adam Savage.[23]

The common theme throughout most of Roach's books is a literary treatment of the human body. Roach says of her publication history, "My books are all [about the human body], Spook is a little bit of departure because it's more about the soul rather than the flesh and blood body, but most of my books are about human bodies in unusual circumstances."[24] When asked by Peter Sagal of NPR, specifically how she picks her topics, she replied, "Well, it's got to have a little science, it's got to have a little history, a little humor—and something gross."[25] For example, her article entitled "The C word: Dead man driving" was published in the Journal of Clinical Anatomy, and asks why cadavers are considered to be dishonored if they are being used to test explosives or crash testing.[26][27]

According to Roach, "Make no mistake, good science writing is medicine. It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy. Good science writing peels away the blindness, generates wonder, and brings the open palm to the forehead: 'Oh! Now I get it!'"[28] Regarding her skepticism about the world around her, Roach states in her book Spook, "Flawed as it is, science remains the most solid god I've got. And so I've decided to turn to it, to see what it had to say on the topic of life after death. Because I know what religion says, and it perplexes me. It doesn't deliver a single, coherent, scientifically sensible or provable scenario… Science seemed the better bet."[29][30] Style Reviewers believe in Packing for Mars, Roach brings courageous curiosity and sauciness.[31] People magazine said that she has a great tone; it is a conversation type format so it is great to follow along with and is remarkable on knowing how to bring objects she used to life while mentioning them.[32] The Library Journal gave Bonk a star review because it was packed with information from physical, chemical, and emotional perspectives about sex research. showing high quality concern and attention to detail.[33]

An interview found on Light Speed observed that Roach’s comical writing voice and her personality are similar if not identical, allowing her to keep a conversational tone in her books. For example, she was asked to clarify a certain passage in the book regarding whether or not the astronauts she interviewed meant that the sunrise behind earth was beautiful or if they were referring to the sight of their crystallizing urine as beautiful. She responded, “Yeah, I read that description in at least two memoirs. When they eject the liquid urine it sublimates, and if the sun is hitting it, it’s this beautiful—I mean, I haven’t seen it myself, but it sounded almost like fireworks or this sparkly beautiful thing, and they would remark on how beautiful this was”.

Writing Packing for Mars however, was not a random adventure that Roach decided to embark on; she was always interested in topics relating to space, and space travel itself. However, she was not always very knowledgeable about the subject at first. “I had no idea until I started this book that when you’re heading to the moon or to Mars, you’re essentially coasting. I thought it was like a car where you’d have your foot on the gas the entire time, and I used to think, 'Jesus, that’s a lot of gas.' "[34] By the end of her book, she was able to vividly describe many nitty-gritty details that were typically overlooked. Roach was not afraid to use potty humor to make Packing for Mars understandable to readers who thought they not even remotely interested in anything space-related.

Roach described the book and her works as a whole as, “…not really books; they're endless chains of distraction shoved inside a cover. Many of them begin at the search box of PubMed, an Internet database of medical journal articles",[35] indicating that Mary Roach uses a sort of “real life” voice to write her best sellers in hopes to captivate humor and intrigue her audience while simultaneously educating them on topics that she feels strongly enough about. She does so by addressing and answering the more practical and technical questions that an audience member may have, such as, how the astronauts go to the bathroom, eat, and sleep, as well as, question the effects of zero gravity on the bodies of the space travelers.[36]

Personal life[edit]

Roach maintains an office in downtown Oakland and lives in the Glenview neighborhood of Oakland (California) with her husband Ed Rachles, an illustrator and graphic designer.[37] Roach also has two step-daughters.

While Roach has often been quoted saying that she does not have much free time between writing books, she is very fond of backpacking and travel. She has been able to do a great deal of the latter, while doing research for her articles and books. Roach has visited all seven continents at least twice.[38]


Roach, photographed by her husband while waiting around on a photo shoot.
Year Title Publisher Subject matter
2003 Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers W. W. Norton & Company Cadavers
2005 Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife W. W. Norton & Company Afterlife
2008 Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex W. W. Norton & Company Human sexuality, Sexology
2010 Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void W. W. Norton & Company Interplanetary spaceflight, Life support system
2010 The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 (editor) Mariner Books
2013 Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal W. W. Norton & Company Human gastrointestinal tract
2013 My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places Penguin Publishing

Awards and recognition[edit]

Mary Roach at TED conference in 2009

In 1995, Roach's article "How to Win at Germ Warfare"[39] was a National Magazine Award Finalist.[40] In the article, Roach conducted an interview with microbiologist Chuck Gerba of the University of Arizona who described a scientific study in which bacteria and virus particles become aerosolized upon flushing a toilet: "Upon flushing, as many as 28,000 virus particles and 660,000 bacteria [are] jettisoned from the bowl."[39]

In 1996, her article on earthquake-proof bamboo houses, "The Bamboo Solution",[41] took the American Engineering Societies Engineering Journalism Award in the general interest magazine category. In her article, civil engineer Jules Janssen remarked that bamboo is "stronger than wood, brick, and concrete... A short, straight column of bamboo with a top surface area of 10 square centimeters could support an 11,000-pound elephant."[41]

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers was a New York Times Bestseller, a 2003 Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" pick, and one of Entertainment Weekly's "Best Books of 2003". Stiff also won the Editor's Choice award in 2003, was voted as a Borders Original Voices book, and was the winner of the Elle Reader's Prize.[42] The book has been translated into at least 17 languages, including Hungarian (Hullamerev) and Lithuanian (Negyvėliai).[5] Stiff was also selected for the Washington State University Common Reading Program in 2008-09.[43]

Roach's column "My Planet" (Reader's Digest) was runner-up in the humor category of the 2005 National Press Club awards.[4][5] Roach's second book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, was the recipient of the Elle Reader's Prize in October 2005. Spook was also listed as a New York Times Notable Books pick in 2005, as well as a New York Times Bestseller. In 2008, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, was chosen as the New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, it was in The Boston Globe Top 5 Science Books, and it was listed as a bestseller in several other publications.[29]

In 2011, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, was chosen as the book of the year for the seventh annual "One City One Book: San Francisco Reads" literary event program.[44] Packing for Mars was also sixth on the New York Times Best Seller list.[45]

In 2012, Roach was the recipient of the Harvard Secular Society's Rushdie Award[46] for her outstanding lifetime achievement in cultural humanism. The same year, she received a Special Citation in scientific inquiry from Maximum Fun.

Her book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (Oneworld) was on the shortlist for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.[47]


  1. ^ Mary Roach. "Mary Roach". 
  2. ^ "Bookslut". 
  3. ^ "Mary Roach, Author of Packing for Mars, Stiff, Spook and Bonk". 
  4. ^ a b Roach, Mary. "About Mary". Retrieved 21 July 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c d Roach, Mary. "Mary Roach". KQED. p. KQED Arts. Retrieved 21 July 2012. 
  6. ^ Roach, Mary (2006-01-18). "Spook". The Writers' Block. NPR. KQED-FM. 
  7. ^ "Former Grotto Inhabitants". The Grotto. Retrieved 22 July 2012. 
  8. ^ Telander, Alex (9 May 2009). "BookBanter Audio Episodes". Retrieved 22 July 2012. 
  9. ^ Drummond, Katie (2013-04-17). "Science writer Mary Roach: 'everything I learn is pretty shocking and weird'". The Verge. 
  10. ^ "Mary Roach". Coast to Coast AM. 
  11. ^ "Mary Roach on Gulp". The Daily Show. 2013-04-01. 
  12. ^ "Mary Roach". The Colbert Report. Season 1. Episode 15. November 9, 2005. 
  13. ^ "Mary Roach". Mars One. 
  14. ^ Roach, Mary (28 June 2012). "Mary Roach". Twitter. Retrieved 5 July 2012. 
  15. ^ a b Maslin, Janet (2008-04-07). "A Sex Researcher Walks Into a Lab, and Then Things Start to Get Comical". Books of the Times (The New York Times). Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  16. ^ "Sex Research, the Video". Slate. 2010-02-23. Archived from the original on 2013-05-22. 
  17. ^ Murphy, Joel (24 April 2008). "Getting to Know Mary Roach". HoboTrashcan. 
  18. ^ Shepard, Kim. "Mary Roach's not-so-serious study of the piehole in 'Gulp'". KIRO-FM. Retrieved 13 November 2013. 
  19. ^ a b Roach, Mary (May 1997). "Meteorite Hunters". Discover. 
  20. ^ Roach, Mary (2013-03-26). "The Marvels in Your Mouth". Health (The New York Times). Retrieved 2014-04-28. 
  21. ^ Lipschultz, Michael. "Meteorite Studies: Terrestrial and extraterrestrial applications, 1997" (PDF). Antarctic Journal. Retrieved 22 July 2012. 
  22. ^ Braasch, Gary. "Antarctica's Hot Spot". Discover. Discover Magazine. Retrieved 13 November 2013. 
  23. ^ Savage, Adam. "Mary Roach in Conversation with Adam Savage". San Francisco Public Library. SFPL. Retrieved 30 July 2012. 
  24. ^ McCarthy, Robynn Swoopy (24 August 2010). "Packing for Mars" (Audio). Skepticality. Skeptic. Retrieved 30 July 2012. 
  25. ^ Siegal, Peter (18 September 2010). "Science Writer Mary Roach Plays Not My Job" (Audio/Transcript). NPR Radio. NPR. Retrieved 30 July 2012. 
  26. ^ Roach, Mary (October 2010). "The C Word: Dead Man Driving". Clinical Anatomy. Wiley-Liss. Retrieved 27 July 2012. 
  27. ^ Roach, Mary. "About Mary". Retrieved 5 July 2012. 
  28. ^ Doughty, Bill (4 February 2012). "Critical Curious Thinking: Mary Roach" (Blog). Navy Reads Blog. Retrieved 30 July 2012. 
  29. ^ a b Roach, Mary. "Spook:Science Tackles the Afterlife". Retrieved 21 July 2012. 
  30. ^ Roach, Mary (March 25, 2013). "The Marvels in Your Mouth". The New York Times. Retrieved April 22, 2013. 
  31. ^ "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach". Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  32. ^ "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach". Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  33. ^ "Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach". Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  34. ^ The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy (June 2011). "Interview: Mary Roach". Lightspeed. 
  35. ^ "Mary Roach Quotes". 
  36. ^ De Silver, Drew. "'Packing for Mars': Mary Roach's take on life in the void". Seattle times. 
  37. ^ Lundell Garver, Beth (23 February 2011). "The Curious Charm of a Writer's Pad". Retrieved 5 July 2012. 
  38. ^ Birnbaum, Robert (1 February 2011). "Mary Roach" (Audio/Transcription). The Morning News. Retrieved 30 July 2012. 
  39. ^ a b Roach, Mary. "How to Win at Germ Warfare" (PDF). slhspapbio. Retrieved 22 July 2012. 
  40. ^ "Health". MPA – the Association of Magazine Media. Retrieved 2014-04-22. 
  41. ^ a b Roach, Mary (June 1996). "The Bamboo Solution" (Magazine). Discover Magazine. Retrieved 22 July 2012. 
  42. ^ Roach, Mary. "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers". Retrieved 21 July 2012. 
  43. ^ Pullman (12 September 2008). "Common Reading Program welcomes author Mary Roach". WSU News. Retrieved 22 July 2012. 
  44. ^ "One City One Book 2011". San Francisco Public Library. 2011. Retrieved 5 July 2012. 
  45. ^ Roach, Mary. "Packing for Mars". Retrieved 21 July 2012. 
  46. ^ Chandonnet, Sarah (29 March 2012). "Author Mary Roach to Receive Lifetime Achievement Award". Humanist Community Project At Harvard. Retrieved 29 July 2012. 
  47. ^ Melissa Hogenboom (10 November 2014). "Materials book wins Royal Society Winton Prize". BBC. Retrieved 11 November 2014. 

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