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Mary Roach’s not-so-serious study of the piehole in ‘Gulp’

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From the lips, past the hips, Mary Roach follows the path food takes through the human body in her latest book, "Gulp." http://www.maryroach.net/gulp.html

She’s been called America’s funniest science writer, and Monday evening Mary Roach will be in Seattle talking about her latest literary adventure “Gulp.”

Roach says for years she has been fascinated by the journey food takes through our body: From the moment you put it to your lips to the moment it leaves your body.

It started with a trip to the Beano company for an article on flatulence.

“I had a very diverting and entertaining afternoon there,” says Roach.

So, she asked a lot of questions and even put her own system to the test – tasting everything from beer and wine to dog and cat food.

Roach says she was amazed at the skill testers are able to develop. Sensory analyst Sue Langstoff who tastes beer for a living can take one swig of beer and detect telltale defective smells. For example, Langstoff can sniff out a trace of chlorine, if chlorinated water is used to clean the beer making equipment.

Roach has made her career as a science writer even though she has no background in any kind of scientific field. She says it’s her curiosity that creates her success and her willingness to ask the tough questions.

So, if your stomach can digest just about anything, why doesn’t it digest itself?

“In fact it does, but the human stomach is also very good at regenerating. So, you actually have a new stomach lining every three days, or thereabouts,” says Roach.

And, did Elvis really die on the toilet?

“Straining is the verb that doctors use,” says Roach. “If you push super hard you can get something called Defecation Associated Sudden Death, which is a heart arrhythmia that can be fatal.”

Roach actually interviewed Elvis’ personal physician, now in his 80’s, and found out “The King” had a life-long battle with a megacolon. It’s a genetic nerve defect that keeps your body from moving things along normally.

Roach clearly isn’t shy when it comes to normally taboo topics and she doesn’t seem to have any trouble finding experts who will open up.

“They make their living studying this, so to them it’s like talking about tire rotation or closet design. It’s just their job. They’re actually delighted to have somebody who’s interested and wants to talk about it,” says Roach.

Those folks have some interesting euphemisms for the bodily functions and parts they deal with on a daily basis, like the toilet scientists at NASA who discuss astronauts’ “contributions.” And people in prison refer to the rectum as the “prison wallet.”

“It’s like a pocket, an extra pocket there,” explains Roach.

Roach’s book “Gulp” is available at Amazon and just about everywhere else books are sold. She’s appearing in Seattle Monday night for a lecture at Town Hall at 6:30 p.m.

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