Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book review: “Stiff” by Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
By Mary Roach
W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (May 2004)

After my previous read on the beginning of life, this one is about the end of it. Mary Roach has collected data, historical facts and curious anecdotes on the fates of human corpses. Despite the unappetizing topic, it is an entertaining read.

Roach discusses decay, burial and its alternatives, giving one's body to science for anatomical studies (where one might serve as a practice for face lifting), organ donation and brain death, plastination, preservation, embalming or becoming a post-mortem crash-test dummy. You, or at least parts of you, can also end up being shot at to study the stopping power of bullets. She further covers the examination of victims of fatal accidents, for example plane crashes, to obtain information about the accident's cause, cannibalism, and experiments that were done to determine whether the shroud of Turin is authentic.

She evidently did a lot of reading and in many cases went to visit the places where experiments were made and talked to the scientists. Roach also does not hold back with her opinion, neither on organ donation nor on the credibility of some scientists or their publications. Thomas Edison for example comes off as “a loopy individual” and she remarks about one author “[He] is not a doctor, or not, at least, one of the medical variety. He is a doctor of the variety that gets a Ph.D. and attaches it to his name on self-help book covers. I found his testimonials iffy as evidence...” One might or might not agree with her opinions, but I found it very refreshing that she speaks her mind and does not leave the reader with a white-washed who-said-what, an unfortunately wide-spread habit among science writers that is sold as balanced reporting but eventually is mostly useless reporting. She also doesn't swallow every story she's read but goes to try verify it herself, as for example in a case of cannibalism reported from China that turns out to be made up. While the report on her travel to China is somewhat pointless in that it doesn't contribute to the theme of the book, it speaks for Roache's fact checking.

The book is full with absurdities from the history of science, such as techniques used in the 18th and 19th century to verify death, among them putting insects into the corpse's ear or rhythmic tongue-pulling for three hours following the suspected death. The reader also learns that the average human stomach bursts when stretched over a volume of approximately 4 liters, and that the Urban Institute in 1991 calculated the value of one human life at US $ 2.7 million. (One is left to wonder whether that's the global average or the value of US citizens.) On some topics I found the coverage thin and would have expected more details, for example on the history of burial or the progress in organ transplantation. I was also surprised that the fate of Einstein's brain didn't even make it into a footnote.

I guess there's only two ways to approach the topic of decaying human remains, either with gravity and philosophy or with humor. Mary Roach does it with humor and she does well, though her jokes become quite foreseeable after a few chapters. A little disturbing I found her tendency to self-degradation and portraying herself as an annoying person who her interview partners must think badly about, reflected in sentences like “[He] throws me a look.... [The look] says I'm a petit bouchon fécal [French, roughly: little piece of shit]” or “She considers this fact. I am feeling more like last week's coleslaw than usual.” It's probably supposed to be funny-ha-ha, but it makes me wonder about the author's self-image.

Taken together, the book is smoothly written, entertaining and covers the topic well. If this was an amazon review, I'd give five stars for flawlessness. Having finished “Stiff” I have to say though that after all the topic isn't one I'm particularly interested in. The book has however provided me with plenty of useless knowledge that is certain to make me a memorable guest when offered at the next dinner party.


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  2. Hi Bee,

    Well this is one book after reading your take on it I find myself not dying to read:-) Though I have to hand it to you for reading it despite saying you actually having little interest in the subject matter. Is this one of those cases where the need to be informed is perceived as a duty, rather than an act of passion or rather you being curious about why a particular writer you being familiar would be so interested?

    If it be the latter I once did the same in respect to Tom Wolfe, when after reading his book “The Right Stuff” found not only had he chosen a topic I was interested in, yet having a excellent writing style, in combination with being a good investigative reporter. So when his first novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities” was published I rushed out to get a copy, only to discover although his writing style and reporting abilities shone through, his insights on the human condition held nothing new or profoundly enlightening. It was here when I realized it was the unique and extraordinary natures of those Mercury astronauts when documented in the spirit of transparency and candour had made The Right Stuff such a enjoyable read. It appears with the reading of this book of Mary Roach you may have been similarly stiffed:-)




    Three times to get it right which finds me to envy those professional writer as having editors:-)

  3. Hi Phil,

    What prompted me to read the book? Yes, I guess a case of curiosity combined with a sense of time-for-something-completely different. Also, I thought the topic will give people a hard time deviating the discussion to pregnancy and parenthood again ;-) More to the point, it's not that the book itself is uninteresting per se it's just that, well, my interests are elsewhere. Sometimes it's good to be reminded of that. Best,


  4. For myself I find it better to rage against the dying of the light, and leave my remains to those for whom I once fed Gerber baby's peas in their high chairs to deal with.

    If I recall correctly the last issue of so of Scientific American had an article about this subject, probably this book.

    The whole body-to-dust thing. Lovely topic. Thanks Bee for the review.

  5. whether the Shroud of Turin is authentic The Shroud of Turin is a trivial fraud. The linen shroud is zero Gaussian curvature planar. A Caucasoid face is a positive Gaussian curvature approximate 2-sphere. A projected flat map of the Earth cannot be created without distortion, or folds' and dissections' discontinuities - ask a cartographer or visit Euclid's Fifth Postulate.

    High school science project: The shroud of Schund. Mold or make a shallow plaster of Paris bas-relief or as-intaglio sculpture of a face incised into the cured planar surface,

    Oven heat to below 233 C then briefly overlay a heavy white cotton sheet or light cotton towel. It must char not melt; charred wool is intolerable. Bright facial projections such as forehead, brows, nose, cheeks, and chin will contact and char dark. Dark facial hollows like eye sockets will not contact the cloth, that then stays white. The result is a shaded photographic negative without distortion. Daub with iron salts and whatnot, then artificially age.

    Uncle Al believes in product not process.

  6. Considering the "dead",

    in this case the Laplacian paradigm of stellar/planetary system formation,

    I offer the more lively conjecture.

    If planetary systems were formed from the capture of "free-floating"
    ultracompact planetary-mass objects inhabiting interstellar space in large numbers, that might explain the following.

    (1) Why a sizeable fraction of planets orbit in retrograde orbits.

    (2) Why many planets orbit in planes that are different from the
    equatorial plane of the host star, and some orbit at large angles to
    that plane.

    (3) Why non-circular orbits are not uncommon.

    (4) How exotic systems like pulsar/planet systems form.

    (5) Why some gas giants are found orbiting their host star at
    distances of < 1AU !!!.

    Adrift, but not completely absent,


  7. Actually, I'm a bit put off that Bee wouldn't deign to answer my curiosity about her latest physics paper. It certainly was on topic for her previous post, unlike the pregnancy, delivery questions. Bee, I would think you'd jump at the chance to explain it a bit. Did the fact that I have an opinion about it from some previous exposure put you off? Perhaps you could set me straight either here or in a comment to that post.

  8. Eric:

    I hadn't read your comments. Reading them now, I can't figure out what the question is. Evidently you didn't read the paper, otherwise you'd have noticed that the point *is* to change the gravitational constant. Best,


  9. Hi Bee,

    Since we're on such a lovely subject, one that I think couldn't come at a more bizarre time as you're about to enter into the process of being the initiator of anti-death, that is to say birth, what is your favorite epitaph?

    Here's mine, and I personally think it's so good, I've decided to rearrange my will to have it etched into my memorial stone one day, and may that day be be very, very into the future. "65 is the new young?!" as was replied at Woit's blog. No that's not it. It's this:

    "I was not, and was conceived. I loved and did a little work. I am not and grieve not."
    ...William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879)

    Died the same year Einstein was born. Imagine that.

  10. I like this one:

    "The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young." ~ Oscar Wilde

    Quite sad, but captures the tragedy of life.

  11. And I like the following:

    "We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."

    - Tombstone epitaph of two amateur astronomers

    As quoted from a book of Carl Sagan, I believe.

  12. You mean the tragedy of mortality? I rather like life. Then again there's Tolkien's Elves explanation of why they envy Men their mortality.

    But fret not, we're a few or maybe a couple of generations away from 4-500 year longevity. One could get 5 or 10 PhD's in that time. Imagine.

    People born in 2030 will have a reasonable chance of living to 130, assuming Western culture lives so long. Dierdre and Liesl or whatever you call your daughters may not survive that long, but I can think of a lot of longevity technology that can develop in the next 50 years, let alone 110-130.

  13. That was very beautiful, Christine. :-) Makes me wonder though what was Carl Sagan's epitaph? Most people in America in the last hundred years don't have one.

    "Behold, the only thing greater than yourself."
    ... tradition in the Kinte family, as each father holds his newborn up to the stars, from "Roots"

    Not a good epitaph at all, but a cool thing that entered my brain based on the epitaph you listed, Christine.

    Maybe Stefan will do that soon?

  14. Epitaph on woman's tombstone, Western U.S.:

    "She averaged well for this vicinity"

    What more can one ask?

  15. what was Carl Sagan's epitaph?

    I don't know.

    The next one is not an epitaph, but the last words of H. G. Wells. I find them really... funny:

    "Go away. I'm all right."

    -- H.G. Wells, last words

  16. I find the Japanese death poems (jisei) very interesting. Poets and Zen monks wrote them literally on the verge of dying.

    Some examples here.

  17. Actually, I can't afford the $25 to get the article. My apologies if I assumed too much just from the title. Actually I'm very pleased if you are considering a variable G. Maybe sometime you can blog on the paper forr all of us hardcore physics cretins. Again, sorry if I improperly assumed something. I was just going by your past writings and from the title.

  18. Eric,

    As far as I know, Sabine always post her papers on the freely accessible arxiv, as you can find here.

    The link to Phys Rev D was to the refereed version, so you have to ask her whether the arxiv and the refereed version have any significant differences.


  19. Hi Bee,

    As both life and death are connected within and explained within the concept of entropy the epitaph of Ludwig Boltzmann should hold to be the most significant.

    " S=k . Log W "



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  21. Gaga has some ideas on putting bodies to good use, and the URL says it all so I'll leave it as is and hope it shows:
    The GF and I saw the Gaga spectacle in September, it was stunning stupefaction supreme!

  22. A lot of epitaphs depend on the trajectory of one's life at the time of death. Some people have wide swings. For instance if Julian Assange (who got out on bail today) passed away I think his epitaph would read "Balls like no other!".

  23. I should add this: I hope he has a much more boring one decades in the future.

  24. Hi Steven & Christine,

    Carl Sagan’s epitaph is not something you will find on his head stone as basically being a pantheist and as such it could only have been assigned if science supported it as to be held true.

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”

    - Carl Sagan - Cosmos (writer/host) "Encyclopaedia Galactica" PBS. 1980-12-14. Episode XII. 01:24 minutes in.



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  27. Hi Eric,

    As Christine said, all my papers (except for some obscure conference proceedings) are available on the arxiv. The PRD version has a few additional explanations that the referee suggested and updated references, but no major differences. I'll update it in the next days. Best,


  28. Hi Bee,
    I've been reading your paper and slowly digesting it a paragraph at a time. I imagine the differences between the official and archive version are too minor for me to worry about.

    By the way, the latest news is that Julian Assange is launching a new new social network site for diplomats to be called the "The Twofacebook Network". Ha!

  29. I really enjoyed the book, though I agree with some of the assessments you make, too. But her research and findings were in many cases jaw-dropping. I did question one statement, though, about cattle not having souls. I wasn't sure if she was being ironic or if it's something she believes. Though the statement is unscientific, it is presented as factual - whatever one thinks about the existence of souls or otherwise, animals certainly have some things in common with humans (it's already been shown time an again that emotions and feelings exist in the animal kingdom).


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