A lot of science, a little law, and a healthy amount of gas

If you have a post-draft-submission hangover, Mary Roach’s new book, “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” may be a refreshing read.  A winner of multiple book awards, Ms. Roach is one of the rare bestseller authors that specialize in writing about science.  She seems to pull off an impossible mission: getting people to read science.  Her secret? Well, maybe her fascinations on peculiar topics have something to do with it.  The subjects of her previous literary pursuits include: human cadaver, life in space, science about after-life, and of course, the science of sex.

In a small volume of 300 pages, which is no more than two nights’ readings for any experienced law student, you will find answers to some of the questions that you always want to ask.  Such as:

–          Where does the legend of fire-breathing dragons come from?

–          How did Elvis die?

–          How to train yourself to be a competitive eater?

–          How to measure your ability in passing gas without sticking a balloon on your butt?

In a blatant attempt to appeal to law students everywhere, Roach managed to include a Supreme Court case in the book.  United States v. Hernandez is a Fourth Amendment case concerning a “balloon swallower” who was detained by an inspector at customs for 16 hours to wait for her bowl movement.  The Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction by the trial court, holding that the 88 balloons containing a total of 528 grams of 80% pure cocaine hydrochloride that she eventually passed were fruits of an illegal detention.  The court further labeled her “efforts to resist the usual calls of nature” as “heroic.”  This did not sit well with the majority of the Supreme Court.  Relying on “the rudimentary knowledge of the human body which judges possess,” Chief Justice Rehnquist found that the smuggler’s unconformable and humiliating detention was the sole result of her creative, but illegal use of her alimentary canal.

An Eureka moment came to me when I read about Roach’s description of a seminal event in the career of one Michael Levitt.  According to Levitt, his fellowship advisor called him into his office on day and said, “I think you ought to study gas.”  Levitt asked, “why?”  The advisor responded, “Because you’re pretty much of an incompetent, and this way if you discover anything, at least it’ll be new, and you‘ll be able to publish something.”  Levitt went on to publish thirty-four papers on flatus, identify the main ingredients responsible for flatus odor, invent the flatus-trapping Mylar “pantaloons,” and become the authority in all subjects related to flatulence.If only I can find the topic in legal academia that most resembles fart!

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