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Sunday, August 28, 2016

#RPLDiscover: "Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War" by Mary Roach

Review by Brett Peto
Public Services Assistant
Reference & Adult Services Department


In a book about military science and technology, you might expect to read about combat. You might expect to read about maneuvers, strategy, and the violence of war. And you will.

But with acclaimed science writer Mary Roach's latest, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, you'll mostly read about—in her funny, easy style—"the quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks."

It's a book about recognizing scientists whose work is unknown outside of small circles, who toil to prevent and treat the worst effects of war. It's also about the science you don't tend to think about, but ends up in our lives and our homes more often than we realize.

Like this: have you ever wondered what military uniforms are made of?

You will after Roach visits the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center to explore how flame-resistant, stain-resistant, and water-resistant materials are developed. This technology is useful for the military, but also for civilians.

Nomex is a synthetic blend that "buys you at least five seconds before your clothes ignite"; it's used in firefighter uniforms.

The newest generation of stain- and water-resistant clothes, where the spill beads up and slides off, copies the "super-repellent coating" of the leaves of the water lily, which have molecular structures similar to paraffin wax.

Sometimes the technology is so new, it hasn't permeated the whole military yet, let alone civilian society.

Thus is the case with TCAPS (Tactical Communication and Protective System), a set of ear cuffs that analyzes and adjusts the volume of different types of incoming sound. Loud noises are made quieter and quiet noises are made louder. TCAPS incorporates squad communications, too, becoming a total filter of the battlefield's landscape of sound.

It's a potential solution to the epidemic of hearing loss spreading through the armed services, but for now only Special Operations forces are using TCAPS, due to "skepticism among leadership" and money, which comes out of the radio budget for equipment like this.

As you can likely tell from the bursts of information here, Roach doesn't loiter too long on almost anything. She slips in and out of subjects as if she's dipping an ice cream cone: just enough to provide a thorough coat, but not so much it drips.

And so, from chapter to chapter, she examines how travelers' diarrhea ("Leaky SEALs") afflicted 77 percent of soldiers in Iraq, 54 percent in Afghanistan, and why, at large, three out of four don't seek medical treatment, and what's in the works to prevent more cases.

She investigates whether there's a universally bad smell ("What Doesn't Kill You Will Make You Reek") that could be made into a stink bomb.

She discusses how the shift work on submarines ("Up and Under") leaves everyone perpetually sleep-deprived, coasting on three or four hours per 24, day in and day out, woken up several times during those precious winks by other sailors, alarms false and real, and their own out-of-whack sleep cycles.

Roach brings such curiosity to everything she ponders, you may wonder how she can keep it up. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, she reveals it's due to not having "a knack for science" when she was young.

"It wasn't interesting to me, which is amazing to me now," she says.

Instead, Roach majored in psychology at Wesleyan University, because "I wanted to go abroad for my entire junior year, and the psych department didn't care."

After years as a freelance copy editor, public affairs spokesperson for the San Francisco Zoological Society, and magazine feature writer, she published her first book, expanding an article she wrote for Salon into Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, today a favorite of maverick book clubs and reading lists nationwide.

From there, Roach's subsequent books have reported on scientific inquiry into the afterlife, the digestive system, life in space, sex, and more, gaining fans with her humor, thoroughness, and accessibility.

She'll probably gain even more fans with Grunt. There's hardly a page—hardly a paragraph—where you don't learn something new. Though this is about the intellectual preparation for war, which can seem unfit for much humor, Roach's sure hand and good sense makes it both enjoyable and respectful, something she echoed in that same interview.

"I have a lot more respect for the people who not only serve as soldiers but the people who dedicate themselves to work that will make that experience more survivable or more bearable," Roach said.

And for being so fearless in her choice of subjects, I have a lot of respect for Mary Roach.

You can find Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War in Adult New Nonfiction, 355.07097 ROA.

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