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Author Explores Space Travel with Milpitas Book Club

Science author Mary Roach visited the Milpitas library on June 22. Her latest book, Packing for Mars, a New York Times bestseller, ventures into the oddities of space exploration.

Imagine life without gravity and even the most mundane tasks become challenging. How do you shower, use the bathroom, or even have sex?

Enter author Mary Roach. In Packing for Mars, she tackles the questions that few have dared to ask by getting the exclusive from astronauts who lived through the experience and scientists who have studied them. 

Last Thursday, members of the Milpitas library book club and its guests, got the skinny on the Oakland-based author with a quirky sense of humor whose studies have explored the oddities of space travel, sex research, corpses and the afterlife.

"I go out into the world ... and gather the most interesting and funny material," Roach said to the audience, similar to gathering a pile of sticks and building the best structure.

As a non-fiction writer, she said she likes to report on the scene, be places, and describe things. Getting access to research labs can be difficult, she said.

Research for Packing for Mars takes her aboard the "vomit comet", a plane used for zero-gravity and reduced gravity experiments by high school and college students at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas.

In one of the chapters, she tackles a condition explored by shrinks in the early years of space exploration on whether astronauts would be able to handle leaving the space capsule without being overtaken by cognitive overload of euphoria, or worse, anxiety. To get a first-hand account at the psychological aspect of space exploration, she travels to a training center just outside of Moscow to interview two astronauts who ended their mission around the '70s early due to "psychological and interpersonal difficulties". 

Making obscure topics fun and accessible to the general public is Roach's style. Stiff, her book on experiments involving cadavers, is read by high school and college students as part of the classroom curriculum, she said.

For Yasmin Martinez, a Union City resident studying to be a funeral director, Stiff was really eye-opening, she said. She has since read Roach's other three books.

Roach, known for her books on popular science, doesn't have a science background and didn't study it in college. ("There are times when I feel like I'm in over my head" that she's embarrassed to ask researchers to explain something, she said.) Her foray into science began when she wrote articles for Discover magazine, she said. 

Part of selecting topics to write about is that they have to have a humorous side or a "quirk factor" to them, she said. When comparing her style to other authors, she mentions Bill Bryson, who "explains, but is also funny."

For Martinez, who follows Roach on Facebook and Twitter, seeing the author in person brought her to the conclusion that she was "more funny in person".

For more information about Mary Roach, click here.

For more information about the Milpitas Public Library Book Discussion Group, click .

To see the schedule of author visits to Santa Clara County Libraries as part of the Adult Summer Reading program, click .

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