Welcome to this week’s Friday Fiction Facts! Sciency things fiction-writers need to know.

photo(7)This week’s Friday Fiction Facts are drawn from Mary Roach’s delightful book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mary Roach, she has been dubbed “America’s funniest science writer” by the Washington Post.  And that she is.  With titles such as Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Roach has a unique entertaining way of delivering good science.

Gulp is a play-by-play trip through the human digestive system.  Now you wouldn’t think that would be an interesting topic, but you’d be surprised. Here, for your Friday Fiction pleasure, are some of the more charming facts I found in Gulp:

We Are Not Pavlov’s Dogs

A blue whale can't swallow you, but a sperm whale might.

A blue whale can’t swallow you alive, but a sperm whale might. (Smithsonian)

Contrary to popular belief, your mouth does not water at the smell of food. Saliva production only increases in response to food in your mouth. This has been proven through more drool studies than you care to think about.  (Search Lashley cup if you don’t believe me). Of course, now that you are reading this you think your mouth is watering more, don’t you? It’s not. You’re just more conscious of it.

The Big Gulp

In the Bible, Jonah was swallowed by a whale. It would not be possible to be swallowed by a baleen whale, as is sometimes pictured in illustrations of the Jonah story, because they are filter-feeders with very small gullets. However, a case could be made that a person could be swallowed by a sperm whale. These whales eat by suction, washing their hapless victims – often giant squid– into their stomachs intact.

New York World, April 12, 1896

New York World, April 12, 1896

To that point, meet James Bartley, a sailor on a whaling ship who was reportedly swallowed by a whale in 1891 and subsequently found alive inside it when his crew caught and butchered the animal. There are, however, some who doubt the veracity of this story.

*sigh* .. Dreamkillers…

True Grit

Human teeth are amazing, not for their strength, but for their sensitivity. With our teeth, we can detect a grain of sand or grit ten microns across.  Roach equates that size to the O on a can of Coke that has been shrunk to the diameter of the human hair.

Chew On This

Fletcherism be damned, chewing your food 100 times or 10 times or not at all makes no difference in your ability to digest your food and extract the nutrients. The reason for chewing is just to get the food down to a size that you can safely swallow. Your digestive system does the rest. This was graphically demonstrated for the first time in the case of Dr. William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin.

Beaumont and St. Martin (by Dean Cornewell 1938)

Beaumont and St. Martin (by Dean Cornewell 1938)

In 1822, St. Martin was shot with a musket at close range. After being operated on by Beaumont, he was left with a fistula that opened directly into his stomach. From then, he became Beaumont’s guinea pig for a lifelong study of digestion. On the very first day of research, Beaumont put a meal that included cabbage, bread, pork, and boiled and raw beef directly into St. Martin’s stomach. When he checked it later, everything had been cleanly digested except the raw beef.

You Are How You Chew

Everyone has a unique chewing pattern. Some people chew quickly, others more slowly. Some up and down, others side-to-side. There are numerous variations and combinations of chewing traits and, no matter what you are chewing – meat, potato chips, rice– you stick to your same pattern. As Roach puts it, “Your oral processing habits are a physiological fingerprint.”

And on that note, I will confess to only being halfway through Roach’s book. This means you may have more delectable digestive facts to look forward to in an upcoming Friday Fiction Facts!