Celebrated for her quirky and personable writing style, Roach has been credited by city librarian Luis Herrera for inspiring a love of science and increasing literacy in the youth of San Francisco.
This honor landed Roach with Discovery Channel’s Mythbuster Adam Savage in a casual banter at the San Francisco Library Nov. 2.
“There’s a lot to go over here, Mary,” said Savage at the start of the interview. “I want to start with young Mary Roach and what sort of precocious child you might have been.”
Roach described her young self as an unorthodox child, playing with toy dinosaurs in litter boxes “because it seemed like a more realistic environment.”
Her scientific curiosity peaked when she was working in public relations at the San Francisco Zoo. “When someone from the Chronicle would call to ask if it was true that the cheetahs were getting sucked dry by fleas, I was asked ‘How many fleas would it actually take to suck a cheetah dry?’”
These questions would send her on tangents of thought trying to calculate how much blood a flea can hold versus the quantity of blood in a cheetah’s body.
The topics of Roach’s books range from from sex research to forensics, and now to space travel. She explores the aspects of scientific discovery in layman’s terms for readers not interested in deciphering dense jargon.
Savage commented on how, in her books, she seems to be as fascinated with the people conducting the research as she is with the subject of research itself.
She described an encounter with a quirky scientist with an acupuncture needle sticking out of his head and wrap around glasses who was hell-bent on helping men with erectile dysfunction.
“These are people whose wives don’t want to hear about what they’re doing,” Roach said. “And I show up and say ‘Wow! Tell me about what you do! Tell me how you do it!'”
Roach is determined to give blooming scientists a behind-the-scenes look at the processes of scientific discovery in addition to the compelling gems of the end product.
Her book has been well-received by readers as evident by the long line of people snaking out of the library to the sidewalk, each hoping to get seats at the event.
“I didn’t like the book so much at first,” said San Francisco resident Meredith Van Natta while waiting in line before the event. “But then there are all of these random facts! Like did you know that deaf people don’t get motion sickness? It’s set up to inspire your curiosity.”
Roach’s pursuit of top researchers and the most interesting contemporary studies have taken her all over the world and to some of the strangest research laboratories.
“I’ve been to Antarctica three times,” said Roach, continuing with anecdotes from Russia, Japan and London.
The library system has stocked 500 copies of Roach’s new book “Packing for Mars,” hoping to encourage San Franciscans to delve into their inner scientist.
After writing about so many fields of study, Roach hopes that her books can benefit those who are not scientifically inclined.
“I’m hoping I’m an ambassador to the world of science for people who don’t think they like science,” she said.