Science

Packing for Mars by Erin Wade

Packing for Mars Cover

Author Mary Roach is a national treasure.

Ms. Roach is a science writer who tackles topics that other authors might shy away from or, if not, would handle in a dry and stale fashion for fear that, to do otherwise would somehow tarnish their reputation. My introduction to Mary Roach's work was a book called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, an account of the myriad possibilities that may happen to the body when it is donated to science. I had never heard of this book or of Mary Roach until it was recommended by a friend (thanks Greg). That recommendation opened up for me a world of delightfully irreverent, yet informative writing on topics that one does not often see treated in an entertaining way.

That book - on a topic I might not have otherwise explored not for squeamishness but rather for lack of interest - revealed a narrator with an incredibly earthy approach to topics others might find distasteful. In addition, there is a clear zeal and intense curiousity for the subject of each book that simply becomes infectious. In reading Stiff one could see that she was fascinated with how cadavers are used - whether for medical training or forensic exploration or as crash-test dummies (really!) - paired with an unflinching willingness to get into the nitty gritty (sometimes very gritty) components of that exploration. She quickly joined David McCullough on my very short list of non-fiction authors I will read regardless of the specific topic.

My most recent journey down the road paved by Mary - or perhaps I should say off the launching pad - was Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Though told against the backdrop of a manned mission to Mars, the book is more an exploration of what we have learned and understand about the effects of prolonged exposure to life in space, and how we have learned it.

In characteristic fashion she jumps delightfully to the point: "To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with." It is a relatively simple thing to launch satellites into orbit and even rovers to other planets compared to determining how to manage human beings in space. She goes on:

You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You're inconstant. You take weeks to fix. The engineer must worry about the water and oxygen and food you'll need in space, about how much extra fuel it will take to launch your shrimp cocktail and irradiated beef tacos. A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It has no ego. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander. It has no ego. It's structural elements don't start to break down without gravity and it works just fine without sleep.

In the course of this book the author spends time in a Russian space training facility and interviewed former cosmonauts, took a ride on the "Vomit Comet", and along the way explores all of the realities - including the most real, human components - of the challenges of spending extended periods of time in space. Some of the simplest activities that we take so very much for granted rely far more heavily on the effect of our natural environment - especially gravity - than one might think. Anyone making their way through Packing for Mars will never think of the word "separation" in quite the same way again.

With any of her works be sure to read the footnotes as you go. They are, by design, asides from the topic of the moment, but like the marginal art of Sergio Aragon├ęs, it adds little bits of additional delight as you work your way through the book. As is usual for me, I listened to the book on Audible, and the reader understood this implicitly. She made sure to include the footnotes as she went, inserting bits of additional factual fun.

One of my favorite facts revealed - one of many - was the sizing on the condoms used as a part of the urinary catheter system developed by NASA. The devices come in three sizes but, knowing the ego of the human male, those sizes are Large, Extra Large, and XXL - proper fit is vital, and they knew no male astronaut would choose a small or medium...

And while it's all great fun as you go, I don't want to leave the impression that it's not rigorously composed. Whether it is finding that accounts reported and repeated in multiple NASA histories have no reliable basis in fact, or determining whether someone actually did film the act of coitus on a parabolic flight (I'll let you discover that for yourself), Mary Roach demonstrates an admirable tenacity for getting her way to truth behind the story.

For anyone with even a passing interest in science writing and/or the space program I can heartily recommend this book.

Evaluating Reported Science by Erin Wade

On the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight John Oliver tackles the problem of science reporting in the media. It's an incredibly important issue, and he manages it quite nicely.

We are, in our modern world, surrounded by the products of science. I'm writing this post on a technological miracle, and making it available to you on a worldwide network that would have been impossible to imagine a century ago. We live longer, we are healthier, we are safer than any generation that came before us. It's really not possible to overstate the benefits we've received from science.

Despite all of that, the actual process of science is often very difficult for people to understand. When science is portrayed in stories, whether books, television, movies, or what have you, the necessity of storytelling presents it as a dynamic, active, and rapid process. It's not. The reality is that real science is slow, methodical, plodding. It's fascinating to the people conducting it, to be sure, but it's not something that makes good fodder for entertainment.

The entertainment portrayal of science seems to interact with a growing tendency for researchers to report information partway through the scientific process. If I've begun a study and I find something interesting, a press release on that effect may bring attention - and possibly funding - to help me continue my study. Research funding is a challenging and competitive process, and one can see why researchers would look for every opportunity to get their particular project out in front of others.

The difficulty is that the interaction here leads to the portrayal of information in the fashion that John Oliver so deftly demonstrates. Each study that's discussed gets similar air time and treatment as another, with little to no evaluation of the relative merits or applicability of the research. And this is problematic at best.

For professionals that work in any healthcare-related field this often means spending time explaining to clients, patients, and concerned family and friends why the thing they heard or read about does not mean they should suddenly go out and change their diet to include eating 473 grapefruits each day, or begin sleeping hanging upside-down in their closet.

Overall, this trend suggests a need for ongoing educational focus on critical evaluation of information. This isn't a new idea, and it's certainly not one I'm coming up with on my own. As those links show, there is considerable thought and effort towards teaching students - starting in adolescence - how to evaluate information they find online.

This is excellent, but I strongly believe there needs to be more. Evaluating information online is only a part of the picture. It's clear, as time goes on and information becomes more pervasive and readily available, that the relative value of memorizing facts has declined, and understanding how to get the information you need is the more relevant skill. Again - this isn't my revelation, instructional processes have been acknowledging this for some time now.

Children should be taught, perhaps starting in adolescence, and repeatedly following, how the scientific process actually works, and how to critically evaluate scientific research. This should include at least the following questions:

  • What was the design of the study? Did it include controls?
  • How many subjects were studied?
  • Who were the subjects? Humans? Animals?
  • Was the sample representative? If so, of whom?
  • Has the study been replicated? If so, how many times, and was the same effect found each time?

Science is, by its nature, long, slow, and methodical. Significant findings, when they occur, should be replicated by additional studies before results are ever felt to be a real phenomenon. The genie appears to be out of the bottle with respect to the infusion of incomplete scientific information in the media. Given this, our kids need to be able to realistically understand when they are receiving useful, actionable information.