Mary Roach, author of the weird sciency books Stiff, Gulp, and Bonk, should go on a comedy tour. Her research about human physiology is not simply regurgitated on the page. It is craftily masticated, suspensefully digested, and hilariously delivered for her readership to chew on. Outside of this blog, I write about evidence-based medicine. I do PubMed searches on things like “mycobacteria, prevalence, United States” and “typhoid fever, pathogenesis”. For her work, Mary Roach searches for things like “cadaveric, penis” and “kegeling, urine dribble”. Here are some fascinating curiosities of Mary Roach.
The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I wonder if Hannibal Lector had a rotisserie.
Elvis likely died of defecation-associated sudden death and not from an overdose. For those not medically inclined, to say it simply–he was so constipated that his colon backed up and he pushed so hard he caused himself a heart attack or embolism. Elvis’ weight gain could have also been caused not by fat deposits like in most of us, but by his megacolon (an actual scientific term!).
Saliva does more than lubricate food. I admit that I actually knew about an enzyme in saliva called amylase because of another hobby of mine–beer brewing, but Roach’s account of Erika Silletti’s saliva research is fascinating. Amylase breaks down sugars (and makes simpler forms for yeast to eat during fermentation), so Roach wondered whether saliva might be useful in a detergent to get rid of food stains in clothes. She was first referred to a chemist named Luis Spitz (ha!), followed by a detergent consultant named Keith Grime (oh the glee!). The short answer is, yes, some detergents contain the same digestive enzymes that our bodies make. In addition to starting the breakdown of food, saliva helps to maintain a neutral pH to protect your teeth from all the acidic drinks and foods you shove in your mouth all day. So where’s the study comparing tooth decay between baseball players (importantly, non tobacco chewers) and the general public? Or maybe we can start with Brian “Young Gun” Krause. Roach, get on it.
Famous sex biologist, Dr. Alfred Kinsey hypothesized that the force at which semen is ejaculated may factor into fertility. To investigate this, he designed an experiment to determine how far men could throw their seed–quite a novel type of ‘pissing contest’. Perhaps not so shockingly, about 75% of men dribble semen with little force upon ejaculation. But 25% of men were able to launch their semen anywhere from inches to a foot or two away. Apparently the record holder landed just shy of 8 feet!
Most people think of contributing their organs for transplant when making the decision to donate their remains when they die. However your body may be used for all sorts of things including crash testing, ballistics studies, anatomy class dissection, or basic research. Remains may be separated for a number of different uses–eyes to an ophthalmology lab, liver to do an alcohol study, spines for injury research. If I can’t save any lives, I really hope my body can contribute to as many studies as possible. I wonder what the record is.
The average time it takes a man from penetration to ejaculation is estimated to be 2-5 minutes (or 100-500 thrusts) according to sex physiologist Roy Levin. I have to take a moment to thank my husband for falling outside the norm.
Bunking up in a stomach is harder than you think (or maybe not). Despite tales from the Bible to Pinocchio, it is more likely than not that most multicellular organisms cannot survive being swallowed. Between gastric juices to muscle contractions, and don’t even get me started on what it must smell like in there (if you are able to “smell” at all), the stomach is no place to hang out. But this inquiry does lead to the funniest sentence in Gulp, which also comes with a hilarious challenge: “While a seaman might survive the suction and swallow, his arrival in a sperm whale’s stomach would seem to present a new set of problems.” The challenge: find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow, and any homophone of seaman.
Grumous means clotted or lumpy. I agree with Roach that this term needs to be introduced into common vernacular. It’s definitely one of the main reasons I hate cottage cheese–it’s grumousness.
In the 1920’s Princess Marie Bonaparte discovered that women whose clitoris was less than 1 inch away from their urethra were more likely to orgasm during heterosexual intercourse than women with a clitoris > 1 inch away. Leading to a catchy phrase by Dr. Kim Wallen many years later: “If the distance is less than the width of your thumb, you are likely to come.” Bonaparte, not willing to accept the distance afforded to her by her genes, had her clitoris surgically moved–an apparent failure as it did nothing to help her climax. Warren recently reanalyzed some data from 2 of these studies and corroborated the distance hypothesis (it’s a very interesting read). Not to dissuade all the ladies out there with far away clitorises (clitori?), I’m sure you (and your partners) know what to do with it.
Did you know that despite all the plants that cows eat, they cannot digest wood pulp? When Roach interviewed Dr. Ed DePeters, he explained that part of his research was to insert a mesh bag full of “food stuff” into a cow stomach (quite awesomely, right through the side of the cow) to document how they digest food. DePeters, a teacher–and no doubt a funny one–snarkely remarked, “sometimes I put a midterm exam in there. I tell my students, ‘The cow didn’t digest that material any better than you did.'”
Of course we all know that a man’s penis does not contain an actual bone, despite popular euphemisms and it’s ability to “break”. But were you aware that dogs do have a penis bone? I’ll never put on lipstick or eat at Red Rocket again without thinking of this little tidbit. You’re welcome.
A researcher by the name of Michael D. Levitt has contributed a lot to medical knowledge of the gut. From demonstrating that the hair-like projections on intestinal cells help to ‘stir the pot’ for maximal nutritional absorption to developing a breath hydrogen test, he’s certainly made his mark on the science of the gut. But his most famous contribution might someday be fart-absorbing underwear. Levitt and his team designed a garment claiming to reduce the noxious chemicals in flatulence by 55-77%. Now, that’s a gas.
The myth of fire-breathing dragons may have evolved from stories of large hunted serpents still digesting herbivorous animals near the fire on which they would have been cooked. Chew on that.