Ray Bradbury reportedly said, “Touch a scientist and you touch a child.” Few writers today bring that childlike wonder to science as well as Knoxvillian Erika Engelhaupt, whose book Gory Details: Adventures from the Dark Side of Science captures the love of the gross, the grisly, and the grimy that has set many a young person on the journey to knowledge.
Indeed, few scientists can deny that an early fascination with all things icky led them to their degrees in biology, chemistry, or medicine. Engelhaupt celebrates this trait in part because, she notes, “Plenty of scientific breakthroughs began with someone who decided to take a closer look at something others might have turned away from.”
The book, a print version of National Geographic’s blog of the same title, features cover art in a color that readers who remember their childhoods will find familiar. It is glow-in-the-dark green and, yes, the title glows when the lights go out. But the whimsical cover is not a sign that Gory Details is a children’s book. Far from it. It is a lighthearted but serious examination of subjects ranging from bugs to cannibalism to sex, all the taboo and morbid subjects that any person with an inquiring mind will find irresistible. This approach, in which gross is the bait and science is the hook, works well in the hands of a writer like Engelhaupt who is trained in science — in this case biology — and who uses her expertise to tell a darn good story.
The subjects covered in Gory Details read like a greatest hits list of inappropriate topics for dinner table conversation. Everyone should find something to like, although it is also possible that some will find one or two chapters too phobia-inducing to tolerate. But that’s okay because each chapter stands on its own. Don’t like reading about earwax? No problem. Maybe pets who eat their dead owners is a more tolerable topic. Cockroaches out, rats in? Face mites not so much, but tiny crime scenes so cool? It’s the kind of book that makes for delightful bite-sized reading with a lot of “Oh, wow” revelations along the way.
Engelhaupt leavens the grossness with hefty helpings of two absolutely crucial ingredients: real science and humor. Every single chapter is full of facts and profiles of the scientists who have discovered them or used them to benefit humanity. In the discussion of cockroaches, for example, she introduces an engineer who is studying the roach’s ability to withstand crushing blows, using the information to design better robots. As Engelhaupt writes of the nearly indestructible creatures, “They take a beating and keep on skittering. It’s also what makes them an engineer’s dream.” These practical applications of seemingly esoteric knowledge are one of the wonders of Gory Details.
And while the science impresses, Engelhaupt’s writing style entertains. She loves humor — has even performed in comedy clubs — and sprinkles dry wit throughout the book. In describing the decay of a recently deceased human, she notes that “thanks to a process called autolysis, or self-digestion, your cells start popping like champagne bottles” and bacteria “suddenly find themselves awash in the microbial equivalent of a Las Vegas buffet’s bottomless brunch.” She has a particular fondness for puns, resulting in chapter titles like “It’s Hard to Get a Head” about head transplants and “Ne-Crow-Philia” about … well, that one is better left for the reader to discover.
Gory Details is the sort of book that leads not only to greater understanding of the world, but to a desire to know more — the unifying trait of scientists and those who are merely curious about their surroundings. Science is often difficult and sometimes downright disgusting, but it’s almost always rewarding. And it may even help cure some of the phobias that keep most of us from exploring certain icky stuff. “I’m less fearful of things I’ve written about,” admits Engelhaupt. “When I look more closely at whatever rattles me — death, disease, creepy clowns — scientific analysis makes it a little more manageable.”
A Michigan native, Chris Scott is an unrepentant Yankee who arrived in Nashville more than 30 years ago and has gradually adapted to Southern ways. He is a geologist by profession and an historian by avocation.
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