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15 Unexpected Facts About Military Research From Mary Roach’s Grunt

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Science writer Mary Roach has explored some unexpected corners of the scientific world, from Elvis’s constipation issues to a sheep rancher determined to test the weight of the soul. In her latest book, Grunt, she dives into the world of military science. Roach learns just how much research goes into every aspect of preparing for war, from figuring out how to deal with diarrhea in the field to designing a camouflage pattern that doesn’t get men killed to finding ways for service members on submarines to get some shut-eye. Here are just a few of the quirky, unexpected things we learned about the science of war and the U.S. military from the book.


By nature of his occupation, a sniper spends a lot of time laying on the ground. If he’s wearing a jacket that closes in the front with a zipper, sand, dirt, and other rubble will end up grinding its way into the zipper's teeth, and it will get stuck. It will also probably stab him uncomfortably in the stomach. Nor is Velcro an option. “I have heard stories of Special Operations guys whose Velcro put them in danger by revealing their position,” Roach writes. As a result of these complicated considerations, the Army has a Hook and Loop Task Group to figure out how to fasten clothing for soldiers in a safe, comfortable way. The latest sniper suits close on the side, rather than in the front, with a flap to protect the buttons, which are themselves tested for durability in the face of weapons like steel blocks, hot irons, and boiling water.


While Army uniforms are rigorously tested and thoroughly regulated—button regulations alone require 22 pages of specifications—there are aspects of military dress that are less about function and more about the fashion decisions of certain high-ranking officials. In 2005, for instance, a high-ranking general picked an untested camouflage pattern to be used to hide troops in all terrains, whether it be deserts, cities, or the woods, eschewing all of the 13 patterns developed and tested by a committee created just for this purpose. It didn’t work out so well. “The new camouflage performed so poorly in Afghanistan that in 2009, the Army spent $3.4 million developing a new and safer pattern for troops deployed there,” Roach explains.

That’s not the only military fashion decision that seems arbitrary. The blue camouflage worn by Navy personnel doesn’t actually serve a useful function, according to one commander, since it just makes it harder to see people who fall overboard. And those fancy black berets Army soldiers wear? They may be less useful than a cap with a brim, but man, they look cool. In 2011, responding to soldiers’ complaints, the Army began providing its soldiers with patrol caps again.


War is loud, whether you’re on the battlefield or just training. A Black Hawk helicopter emits a din of 106 decibels, and the sound of firing an ATT4 anti-tank weapon clocks in at 187 decibels. For reference, you can only be exposed to 115 decibels for 30 seconds before incurring hearing damage. But just how to protect soldiers’ ear drums is complicated. Earplugs cut sound by about 30 decibels, but they dampen noise indiscriminately, meaning that just as explosions get quieter, so do the your commander’s orders and the sound of enemy fire. Furthermore, it’s almost impossible to shove an earplug far enough into the ear when you’re wearing a combat helmet. As a result, the Veterans Administration spends $1 billion a year treating hearing loss and tinnitus.


Right now, there’s no good way to study how improvised explosive devices affect the human body, or how different military equipment could protect against them. The crash dummies currently available are made for testing the physics of car crashes on the human body. Car crashes come from the front, back, or side, but explosive devices impact the body from below, exploding beneath someone’s feet or under their vehicle. So the Army is building its own, IED-specific dummy called the Warrior Injury Assessment Manikin, or WIAMan. The device won’t be ready until 2021, and in the meantime, the Army has to use cadavers if it wants to understand the ways that IEDs affect the human body realistically.


The widespread use of IEDs in combat zones has invigorated military research in another unexpected direction. An Iraq vet who works as a surgeon at D.C.’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center told Roach that wounded men usually have the same two questions after an explosion. “The first thing they ask is, ‘Where’s my buddy? Is he O.K.? … The second thing they say is, ‘Is my penis there?’”

Thanks to advanced technology and medical science, soldiers are surviving traumas that would have left them dead on the battlefield in past wars. And some of the injuries these men have to live with are very intimate.

While it may sound superficial to be concerned with your manhood over more deadly losses, losing your genitals can be more traumatic than losing a limb in some ways. You can get a prosthetic leg. You can get a wheelchair. But making up for the loss of that most personal of organs, the penis, is a bit more complicated. Luckily, the science is making big strides. The first U.S. penis transplant was performed in May 2016, and the patient, a cancer survivor, was released from the hospital less than a month later.


Because of what one study called the “unprecedented” rate of genital injuries experienced by soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army has been trying to develop underwear that could protect its soldiers’ crotches from harm. In 2010, a company called BCB debuted “Blast Boxers,” a product marketed as “bomb-proof underwear.” Unfortunately, no underwear is really bomb-proof. Even the Blast Boxers’s Kevlar can’t stop shards of metal blasting out of an IED. But it can stop dirt that blasts out of the ground when the bomb goes off, helping stave off infections in the resulting wounds. However, the Army has been researching the protective qualities of silk, which despite its reputation for delicacy, might be useful in the event of a bomb from below—it’s strong enough that bits of fiber won’t get embedded in the wound. However, the effort has run into some sourcing and development issues, and soldiers still don’t have their protective undies.


When in combat, soldiers typically carry around 95 pounds of body armor, batteries, weapons, and ammunition. As a result, soldiers sweat a ton, and researchers have quantified exactly how much. In the 1940s, military experiments found that carrying a 68-pound pack increased soldiers’ sweating by more than 20 fluid ounces per hour. Even when not in immediate combat, soldiers have a lot of weight on their soldiers. On a two-day loaded march, a soldier in Afghanistan would be expected to carry around 30 pounds. The weight modern soldiers have to bear on a regular basis can lead to abdominal strain and pelvic organ prolapse, according to a 2010 report of new medical challenges facing military hospitals.


Poop is no joke on active duty. If you think traveler’s diarrhea is bad when you’re a tourist, imagine being in a combat zone. In one military survey of service members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2004, 32 percent of respondents had been hit with a violent case of diarrhea in a situation where they couldn’t get to a toilet. More than three-quarters of soldiers in Iraq and 54 percent in Afghanistan came down with diarrhea at some point, and 40 percent of those cases were so severe they required medical attention. As one Special Operator told Roach, “I have many stories where I’ve soiled my pants on missions. In Iraq, I’ve soiled my pants. In Afghanistan, I’ve soiled my pants.”

Obviously, military researchers are hard at work figuring out how to toughen up soldiers' stomachs for when they inevitably eat questionably sanitary meals in remote locations. In the meantime, soldiers improvise. For those who expect to be stuck in one spot for a long time—like in a hole surveilling a specific intersection—one air strike controller told Roach that a double layer of gallon Ziploc bags and kitty litter have to do the trick if a digestive emergency arises.


On some submarines, space is at such a premium that crew members have to sleep with the missiles. That’s the case on the USS Tennessee, a sub that needed to add some bed space when technology upgrades required an increase in people on board. So people sleep in the missile compartment, wedged between Trident II nuclear missiles. Apparently, it’s a pretty peaceful place to get some shut-eye, as far as submarine sleeping quarters go. And that's particularly important, because ...


For better or worse, the crew of subs like the USS Tennessee don’t get to spend much time napping between the missiles. On average, they get about four hours sleep a day. When they are scheduled to have some down time, their sleep is more often than not disrupted by fire drills, training, maintenance, and more. Junior crew members sleep even less than most, because they have to study for qualification, an extensive test of all the major systems across a submarine that every submariner has to pass. And as we all know, a lack of sleep can impair your judgment just as much as a few drinks would, making the military very, very interested in sleep research.


In 1987, Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III calculated just how much paperwork is involved with working on a submarine. According to his figures, a smaller warship has to carry 20 tons of technical manuals, forms, crew logs, and shelves. He campaigned for paperless ships, but subs still carry more pounds of paperwork than crew, according to Roach.


When submarines surface, it’s hazardous to anything else around, despite the use of technology like sonar. In 2001, a U.S. submarine came up right under a 191-foot-long, 499-ton Japanese trawler, ripping the ship in half and sinking it in just minutes. Subs navigate by sonar, but there are limits to what sonar can detect, which is why periscopes exist. If a ship’s engines are off or if it’s pointed right at the sub’s sonar array, it might go undetected. Furthermore, it doesn’t reflect distance quickly enough to let crew members know whether they should immediately dive or if the ship they’re trying to avoid is miles away. These limits to visibility and object detection might explain how in 2005, a $1 billion U.S. sub crashed into an underwater mountain at 40 miles per hour.


Soldiers tend to be weight-lifting, muscular fitness buffs, with an emphasis on the “buff.” Over the course of the 6000 autopsies on service members since 2004, doctors found that in about half of cases where men were treated in the field for a collapsed lung—involving a needle inserted into the chest to relieve pressure—the soldier’s pecs were so immense that the needle wasn’t long enough to reach past the layer of muscle into the lung. In response, the military began issuing longer needles for buff patients.


Currently, everyone in the military who dies while on duty gets an autopsy. The rule applies to service men and women, but it also applies to military dogs. While this wasn’t the case before the War on Terror, in 2004, the military decided to examine every service member in order to find new treatments and technologies for wartime injuries. These autopsies allow military doctors to see if the medical devices and techniques they’ve been using worked the way they were supposed to, and to determine if anything could have been done to save the fallen soldier.


“They think a lot of harebrained things are good ideas,” sleep researcher Greg Belenky, a retired colonel, told Roach of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a military research arm perhaps best known among civilians for its annual robotics competition, where futuristic, top-of-the-line robots go head-to-head in tough tasks like walking on soft dirt without falling over. Besides all-terrain robots, DARPA hopes to create technology that would allow soldiers to stay awake for up to seven days without showing any adverse side effects, allowing those sleep-deprived submariners, for one, to work more efficiently to avoid deadly mistakes.

Roach tracked down a NATO symposium list of far-off, hypothetical technologies the military would love to develop to help its soldiers be at their best, including prosthetic limbs that would provide superhuman strength and eye implants that would allow soldiers to see in infrared and ultraviolet frequencies. “The wish list also included ‘surgically provided gills,’” Roach notes.

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Pop Culture
5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:


Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.


A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.


Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.


A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.


A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0
5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.


Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?


This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.


An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.


Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.


Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.


Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.


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