Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
by Mary Roach
(Norton, $24.95)

Leonardo da Vinci held a dim view of sex. “Copulation,” he once said, “is awkward and disgusting.” His attitude, writes author Mary Roach, didn’t prevent him from studying human genitalia in some detail. Yet Leonardo was an outlier in the history of sex research. Well into the 20th century, Roach says, other scientific pioneers were so squeamish about studying the mechanics of human sex that even leaders in the field resorted to extrapolating from the observed mating habits of small woodland animals. Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey famously pushed science beyond many old inhibitions in the 1950s, but barriers remain. If a scientist today isn’t interested in developing a new Viagra, says Roach, obtaining funding can be a problem.

Roach is an unusually entertaining science writer, said Pamela Paul in The New York Times. In her best-known book, Stiff, she took a close look at the myriad fates of cadavers and made facing death fun. In Bonk, she finds deep comedy in a potentially titillating topic. Part of her trick is that she’s “interested less in scientific subjects than in the ways scientists study their subjects.” She’s without doubt a “bold, tenacious” reporter, ready to crisscross the globe to scrutinize various research frontiers. But she’s also winningly amused by goofy scholarly jargon or the idea of couples trying to get it on while they’re wired like marionettes to various monitoring devices.

“In answer to your question,” said Jon Carroll in the San Francisco Chronicle, yes, Roach became a test subject herself. When she reached out to a London scientist who had found a way to capture ultrasound images of human genitalia in the act of sexual congress, he was forced to admit that he had yet to locate any volunteers. Roach and her saintly husband stepped in. Rest assured, said Elizabeth Bachner in, this will not be one of the moments in Bonk that will gross you out. Though Roach is always tasteful, she eagerly provides graphic descriptions of pig insemination or penis surgery, because doing so brings out the absurdity of sex and our abiding interest in it. In Bonk, “all of us come across as ridiculous, but not unlovable.”