Rhyme and Reason: Gulp by Mary Roach

Rhyme and Reason is where the excerpts I enjoy, from books I’m currently reading, come to live.

Mary Roach approaches the subject of food and what happens to it once it’s eaten with a mix of unbridled delight, ceaseless curiousity, infectious enthusiasm and a whole lot of hilarity. Which makes reading her book an incredibly enchanting experience. I’ve become a huge fan of her zealous writing and her ability to make science so much fun. I can’t wait to read everything else she’s written, which include books about dead bodies, sex, space and the afterlife.

Gulp deals with a myriad of topics you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about digestion including, as this particular excerpt shows, the existence of dragons in mythology. As the author says in the introduction, “I don’t want you to say, ‘This is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting.’ Okay, and maybe a little gross.

gulp

Snakes don’t belch, but they can, under certain circumstances, create an inflammable eructation of literally mythical proportions. First, a little background: Many plant-eating animals lack rumens, so some fermenting takes place in the cecum, an anatomical pouch at the junction of the small intestine and the colon. These same plant-eaters – horses, rabbits, koalas, to name three – tend to have a larger-than-life cecum. Pythons and boas do too, which struck Stephen Secor as odd, because they’re carnivores. Why, he wondered, would a meat-eater need a vegetation disgestion unit? Secor theorised that perhaps these snakes had evolved ceca as a way to digest and take advantage of plant matter inside the stomachs of their prey.

To test his theory, Secor fed rats to some of the pythons in his lab at the University of Alabama and hooked them up to a gas chromatograph. He tracked the hydrogen level in their exhalations as they digested whole rats over the course of four days. He did see a spike, but it appeared long before the rat arrived at the python’s cecum. Instead, Secor suspected, the hydrogen spikes were the result of the decomposing, gas-bloated rat bursting inside the python. ‘One thing led to another.’ (Secor’s way of saying he popped a bloated rat corpse and measured the hydrogen that came off it.) Suspicion confirmed. The hydrogen level was ‘through the roof’. Secor had stumbled onto a biological explanation for the myth of the fire-breathing dragon. Stay with me. This is very cool.

Roll the calendar back a few millennia and picture yourself in a hairy outfit, dragging home a python you have hunted. Hunted is maybe the wrong word. The python was digesting a whole gazelle and was in no condition to fight or flee. You rounded a bend and there it was, Neanderthal turducken. Gazython. The fact that the gazelle is partially decomposed does not bother you. Early man was a scavenger as well as a hunter. He was used to stinking meat. And those decomp gases are key to our story. Which I now turn over to Secor.

‘So this python is full of gas. You set it down by the campfire because you’re going to eat it. Somebody kicks it or steps on it, and all this hydrogen shoots out of its mouth.’ Hydrogen, as the you and I of today know but the you and I of the Pleistocene did not know, starts to be flammable at a concentration of 4 percent. And hydrogen, as Stephen Secor showed, comes out of a decomposing animal at a concentration of about 10 percent. Secor made a flame-throwery whooosh sound. ‘There’s your fire-breathing serpent. Imagine the stories that would generate. Over a couple thousand years, you’ve got yourself a legend. He did some digging. The oldest stories of fire-breathing dragons come from Africa and south China: where the giant snakes are.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Rhyme and Reason: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Rhyme and Reason is where the excerpts I enjoy, from books I’m currently reading, come to live.

The Secret Garden has been on my to-read list for a very long time, and on my tablet since last November. I started reading it earlier this week on the train back home from a weekend in Goa. The only reason I got around to it was because I had already finished the book I was carrying (Money for Nothing by P. G. Wodehouse) on the same train ride and had nothing else to read. And I’m so glad I had this book because I’m absolutely loving it. It has just the right balance of childlike wonder, gentle storytelling, magical descriptions, and a couple of kids who have to deal with the consequences of their spoiled brattiness, and are thus hugely interesting characters. This scene in particular made me laugh because of the way the main character and original brat, Mary, refuses to let her cousin (and new brat-in-chief), Colin, get his way as he’s accustomed to. You can read the book on Project Gutenberg here.

the secret garden

She thought it was the middle of the night when she was awakened by such dreadful sounds that she jumped out of bed in an instant. What was it—what was it? The next minute she felt quite sure she knew. Doors were opened and shut and there were hurrying feet in the corridors and some one was crying and screaming at the same time, screaming and crying in a horrible way.

“It’s Colin,” she said. “He’s having one of those tantrums the nurse called hysterics. How awful it sounds.”

As she listened to the sobbing screams she did not wonder that people were so frightened that they gave him his own way in everything rather than hear them. She put her hands over her ears and felt sick and shivering.

“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do,” she kept saying. “I can’t bear it.”

Once she wondered if he would stop if she dared go to him and then she remembered how he had driven her out of the room and thought that perhaps the sight of her might make him worse. Even when she pressed her hands more tightly over her ears she could not keep the awful sounds out. She hated them so and was so terrified by them that suddenly they began to make her angry and she felt as if she should like to fly into a tantrum herself and frighten him as he was frightening her. She was not used to any one’s tempers but her own. She took her hands from her ears and sprang up and stamped her foot.

“He ought to be stopped! Somebody ought to make him stop! Somebody ought to beat him!” she cried out.

Just then she heard feet almost running down the corridor and her door opened and the nurse came in. She was not laughing now by any means. She even looked rather pale.

“He’s worked himself into hysterics,” she said in a great hurry. “He’ll do himself harm. No one can do anything with him. You come and try, like a good child. He likes you.”

“He turned me out of the room this morning,” said Mary, stamping her foot with excitement.

The stamp rather pleased the nurse. The truth was that she had been afraid she might find Mary crying and hiding her head under the bed-clothes.

“That’s right,” she said. “You’re in the right humor. You go and scold him. Give him something new to think of. Do go, child, as quick as ever you can.”

It was not until afterward that Mary realized that the thing had been funny as well as dreadful—that it was funny that all the grown-up people were so frightened that they came to a little girl just because they guessed she was almost as bad as Colin himself.

She flew along the corridor and the nearer she got to the screams the higher her temper mounted. She felt quite wicked by the time she reached the door. She slapped it open with her hand and ran across the room to the four-posted bed.

“You stop!” she almost shouted. “You stop! I hate you! Everybody hates you! I wish everybody would run out of the house and let you scream yourself to death! You will scream yourself to death in a minute, and I wish you would!” A nice sympathetic child could neither have thought nor said such things, but it just happened that the shock of hearing them was the best possible thing for this hysterical boy whom no one had ever dared to restrain or contradict.

He had been lying on his face beating his pillow with his hands and he actually almost jumped around, he turned so quickly at the sound of the furious little voice. His face looked dreadful, white and red and swollen, and he was gasping and choking; but savage little Mary did not care an atom.

“If you scream another scream,” she said, “I’ll scream too—and I can scream louder than you can and I’ll frighten you, I’ll frighten you!”

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Rhyme and Reason: Summer Lightning by P. G. Wodehouse

Rhyme and Reason is where the excerpts I enjoy, from books I’m currently reading, come to live.

As I’ve discovered, reading Wodehouse in public comes with its share of dangers. You will be pegged as “the strange girl in the corner who has been reduced to snorting and giggling fits.” If only that meant that commuters would give me a wide berth and leave me a little legroom, but no such luck. IMG_20150217_073603

The Hon. Galahad produced a black-rimmed monocle, and screwing it into his eye, surveyed the table with a frown of distaste. ‘Tea?’

Millicent reached for a cup. ‘Cream and sugar, Uncle Gally?’

He stopped her with a gesture of shocked loathing. ‘You know I never drink tea. Too much respect for my inside. Don’t tell me you are ruining your inside with that poison.’

‘Sorry, Uncle Gally. I like it.’

‘You be careful,’ urged the Hon. Galahad, who was fond of his niece and did not like to see her falling into bad habits. ‘You be very careful how you fool about with that stuff. Did I ever tell you about poor Buffy Struggles back in ‘ninety-three? Some misguided person lured poor old Buffy into one of those temperance lectures illustrated with coloured slides, and he called on me the next day ashen, poor old chap – ashen. “Gally,” he said. “What would you say the procedure was when a fellow wants to buy tea? How would a fellow set about it?” “Tea?” I said. “What do you want tea for?” “To drink,” said Buffy. “Pull yourself together, dear boy,” I said. “You’re talking wildly. You can’t drink tea. Have a brandy-and-soda.” “No more alcohol for me,” said Buffy. “Look what it does to the common earthworm.” “But you’re not a common earthworm,” I said, putting my finger on the flaw in his argument right away. “I dashed soon shall be if I go on drinking alcohol,” said Buffy. Well, I begged him with tears in my eyes not to do anything rash, but I couldn’t move him. He ordered in ten pounds of the much and was dead inside the year.’

‘Good heavens! Really?’

The Hon. Galahad nodded impressively. ‘Dead as a door-nail. Got run over by a hansom cab, poor dear old chap, as he was crossing Piccadilly. You’ll find the story in my book.’

Summer Lightning by P. G. Wodehouse