A Voyage with Mary Roach

"A Voyage with Mary Roach," held in the HUB-Robeson Auditorium at Penn State, was the much anticipated culminating event of the 2014 Centre County Reads/CALS Community Read slate of programming.

On April 15, over 250 people from the university and the larger Centre County community braved an unexpected snowfall to hear author Mary Roach speak about her adventures researching Packing for Mars.

The night began by announcing the winners of this year’s writing contest, “Writing the (Un)Known.” Then, moderator Katie O’Toole and Roach took the stage. O’Toole, an instructor in Penn State’s College of Communications, has worked for 24 years at Penn State Public Broadcasting as a producer, writer, and on-air host. Roach, dubbed “America’s funniest science writer” by the Washington Post, is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void; Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex; and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Packing for Mars is a New York Times Editor's Choice.

O’Toole and Roach regaled the audience with their lively dialogue, which roved freely across both disciplinary and personal boundaries. Highlights include the many moments of laughter, such as when Roach recounted asking her husband to join her in an MRI machine in the name of research for Bonk, as well as her explanation of how astronauts need to be re-toilet-trained due to the effects of low gravity on the bladder's stretch receptors. The audience was also treated to the intricacies of Roach’s writing and research process, which she laughingly described as “chaotic” due to her limitless sense of curiosity. “I have no boundaries” Roach deadpanned, “there’s no ‘too much’ for me.”

The last segment of the night was devoted to audience questions. While Roach wouldn’t disclose the topic of her next book project, she did confide that she had spent her time in State College shadowing and talking to Penn State scientists and researchers. The audience also learned that Roach traces her journalism roots to a childhood admiration for the titular character of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a stint as a publicist at the San Francisco Zoo. Finally, when asked to transmit a message of encouragement to the Penn State Lunar Lion team, Roach raised a first in the air and shouted, “GOGOGOGOGOGO!”

Roach’s passion for her work—at one point, she described herself as “easily amazed and awed”—was infectious. The crowd's palpable enthusiasm during the event evidenced the success of this year’s Centre County Reads/CALS Community Read selection of Packing for Mars in cultivating the shared sense of wonder unique to community literature.

Above: Mary Roach and Katie O'Toole trade stories about their rides in NASA's infamous "Vomit Comet," the reduced gravity aircraft simulator used for training astronauts.