Book Review – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

America’s astronauts are hailed as fearless explorers of the void, boldly going into the unknown and taking giant leaps for mankind. Their spacecraft, from the mighty Saturn V that launched the Apollo moon missions to the workhorse Space Shuttles, are recognized as cutting-edge conveyances drawing from the latest in science and technology. And both these men and their machines, writes Mary Roach, can be undone by something as simple as a clogged toilet.

Packing for Mars, courtesy of Mary Roach

In her 2010 book “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” Roach takes a gleefully irreverent look at the human element of spaceflight and just how unglamorous that element can be. From space psychology to motion sickness to the aforementioned toilet troubles, she examines the myriad difficulties that face travelers evolved under Earth’s gravity when adrift in space. Her style, a uniquely entertaining blend of brilliant humor and scientific rigor, is well suited to explaining the importance of the issues while never losing sight of their essential absurdity.

At her best, Roach seamlessly integrates quotable moments from an endless selection of astronauts and NASA scientists into her riotous narrative. In referencing early Soviet experiments on restricted hygiene (an important factor on a spacecraft with limited water supplies), she at first quotes a dry phrase from the scientific report: subjects spent “most of their time sitting in an armchair.” And then she paints an absurd but accurate picture: “The simulated astronaut of the sixties was a stinky guy watching TV in a dirty undershirt.”

The book has an excellent sense of flow for a popular scientific work, each chapter lasting just as long as necessary and transitioning into each other with pithy one-liners. For example, when moving from a section on earthbound isolation experiments to one on the study of psychology in orbit, she matter-of-factly claims that “[to] find out what would happen to a man alone in the cosmos, at some point you just had to lob one up there.” Roach’s masterly use of footnotes also allows her to keep the breezy tone of the text while incorporating juicy details for the enterprising reader.

Perhaps most importantly, Roach humanizes the explorers and researchers of the space program, giving them the flaws and quirks of everyday people. A choice selection from the Apollo 10 mission transcript, where the astronauts each deny personal responsibility for an “escaped” bit of waste, reads more like a group of college kids debating “who smelt it, dealt it” than a cadre of expert pilots. “Mine was a little more sticky than that,” in the words of Mission Commander Thomas Stafford.

Although the closing of the book, where Roach expresses the ability of spaceflight (despite its foibles) to inspire wonder, feels a bit perfunctory, “Packing for Mars” remains an enlightening and entertaining read. Her work offers a unique look at, well, the crap that goes on behind the scenes as mankind shoots for the stars.

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A Personal Roundup – First Week with Science Recorder

My posting on Sword of Science has been delayed this week, but for good reason: I’ve been conducting a trial week as a contributor for Science Recorder! I’m responsible for producing two short science articles for that site four days a week, which has taken much of the time I’ve previously assigned to this blog. While I intend to continue Sword of Science, posting discussions and reviews of topics I find personally interesting, my schedule may become slightly more irregular. I encourage you to check out the work I’ve been doing on Science Recorder, the first crop of which is summarized below!

The path of the “Penguin Eclipse,” one of the topics I covered in my first week with Science Recorder. Courtesy of Wired.

Online telescope provides rare glimpse of Antarctic solar eclipse: An annular solar eclipse, the first of this year, took place last Tuesday over Antarctica. An online telescope operated by the Slooh Community Observatory gave viewers around the world a chance to see it.

Year’s first solar eclipse wows Australian astronomers: Australian stargazers battled cloudy skies to view that previously mentioned solar eclipse. The country won’t experience another solar eclipse for nearly a decade.

Ancient caribou hunters leave traces underneath Lake Huron: Scientists dove to the bottom of Lake Huron to uncover evidence of ancient caribou hunting. The elaborate structures and tool flakes point to a concentration of aboriginal activity in the area around 9,000 years ago.

Industrial nations’ greenhouse gas emissions dropping, but not by enough: According to recent United Nations data, greenhouse gas emissions fell across over 40 industrial countries in 2012. However, scientists warn that these reductions may be insufficient to stop the effects of global warming.

Astronomers measure day on distant exoplanet: Astronomers from Leiden University and the Netherlands Institute for Space Research calculated the length of a day on Beta Pictoris b, an exoplanet located 63 light-years from Earth. This finding represents the first measurement of day length on a planet outside the solar system.

Neanderthals and humans close in intelligence, say researchers: A new review of the archeological record finds that Neanderthals and humans were evenly matched in terms of intelligence. Researchers say that ancient cultural sites and artifacts point to sophisticated behavior among humanity’s “dimwitted” ancestor.

Deep-sea viruses and bacteria battle beneath the waves: Bacteria living near inhospitable hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor are challenged by infection by viruses, say University of Michigan researchers. The viruses hijack the molecular machinery of the bacteria for their own rapid reproduction.

Western US droughts leave long-lasting evidence in tree rings: Droughts in the western U.S. have been far worse than even current parched conditions, suggests new research. Results drawn from the thicknesses of tree rings show that the longest drought in the area lasted 16 years.