Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 7: "Digestion"
Everything we eat ends up in our stomach, the science guy says.
To demonstrate, he pours a milkshake into a heavy latex balloon. To show the way our bodies break down milkshakes, he squeezes the balloon like a stress ball. His hands play the role of stomach muscles. Your own stomach starts to ache just watching.
Now, along with the squeezing muscles, the science guy says, not stopping there, our stomachs have a powerful acid. He’s talking about hydrochloric acid, of which there’s a beakerful beside him. To demonstrate, he tears a hunk from a cheeseburger and places it in the acid. To show the way our bodies break down cheeseburgers, he’s got one that’s been sitting in the acid overnight. The overnight-beaker’s full of opaque, purple-black liquid where once there was the burger. The science guy is thrilled—the science guy’s young assistant’s bugged out. Your own stomach starts to ache just watching.
Soft cheeses. Sausage biscuits. French fries. You’ve been adding to the list of foods to avoid. Thai spices. Indian spices. The science guy’s young assistant explains why your stomach hasn’t burned itself alive quite yet, though every day it feels like the little self-immolator’s doing just that. Coffee. Cream. Buffalo wings. He says your stomach grows a new lining every three to four days. Pork fat. Fried chicken. Chocolate milk. He says, Mucus protects our stomach walls from the acid inside. Arugula. Enchiladas. Honey ham. Considering you’ve felt acidic inside every day of your life, you can’t imagine how this is possibly true.
It’s a long trip through your digestive system, the science guy says, peering through a length of insulation sleeve to demonstrate. You hear him, understand him, though you’ve started to wonder if you aren’t the exception. Almost all that enters wants to leave right away. This is the least crass way to put it. You’ve learned to be upfront. After all, the processes are natural—the squeezing, burning, mucusing, ejecting. Maybe all that’s different is the vessel. Maybe yours is broken. It’s a long trip, the science guy says, and he’s right. As usual. If this is the worst, it could be worse.
Kathy Sdao works at the Point Defiant Zoo in Tacoma. She is showing high schoolers how a Burmese python eats. She lifts a fat white mouse by the tail and hovers it above the snake’s jaws. The jaws react almost before the eyes see them do so. The whole mouse disappears, leaving only the tail to dangle outside. Kathy Sdao says it can take up to two years to fully digest the mouse. Burmese pythons don’t eat that often.
Kathy Sdao is teaching high schoolers about something. Digestion, maybe. Or reptiles. Maybe the experience, the viewing, is, in fact, the education. You teach a ninth grader who breeds reptiles. His first snake was a ball python named Sunny D; his most recent is named Skittles. When Kathy Sdao teaches how slowly snakes digest, you know this already. Your student taught you in an essay you taught him how to write. He argued that snakes are the best pets. Together, you watched instructional videos on the art of snake handling and breeding. Together, you researched dog-bite deaths versus snake-bite deaths versus deaths by lightning strike. This was the best piece of writing your student had ever crafted. He was teaching you, he learned something, and you thought, This is education.
Kathy Sdao moves on to the elephants. The camera zooms in on a pachyderm turd, gnarly with hay. She hands forearm-thick sticks to the high schoolers, who gleefully tear into the feces. You can imagine the smell. One girl laughs, says, Actually, it doesn’t look gross on the inside. It just looks like hay. This girl is right. She’s broken apart what she thought she knew, learned something different instead. Kathy Sdao thinks, This is education.
The science guy is waiting for the restroom. He knocks on the door, hears the muffled voice of embarrassed occupation from inside, and squirms. His feet knock back and forth. He smiles like he doesn’t have to go, not that bad, not really. It’s very natural, the science guy says. It’s the last step in the uh, digestion….uh, process. He isn’t fooling anyone. It happens every day.
You still never know, to this day, to tomorrow and beyond, what food will fuck you up. Your loved ones have asked you to get a doctor’s word on the matter. Dairy you know. Forget about dairy. Gluten, thank god, is just fine. The rest is murky. A meal you’ve relied on as safe for months, years, could suddenly send you bent-double white-flash cramping. Public meals are a gamble. Lunch break each day, for example, comes tender with the worried expectation of mid-class discomfort, even pain. There are worse lives to lead. You can’t complain, not really. You’ve started bringing cans of soup to school, sometimes heating them up, sometimes digging straight into the can with a spoon. It’s safe. You’ve adapted. There were the two days in a row this year when, mid-instruction, you excused yourself from the classroom. Sweating and suffering. Stomach muscles struggling to break down whatever it was you’d handed them. You’ve adapted.
The science guy waits politely, if impatiently, for the restroom. He dictates digestion’s final step, his face mostly calm, but twitching. Plainly put: he has to go. He isn’t fooling anyone, shouldn’t have to. The stomach is not a latex balloon or a beaker. It breathes, reacts. It’s fucked up. You understand the science guy’s not here to illuminate complexities. To relay every sweating, suffering experience. You read his face at the restroom door, though, and he doesn’t need to. His woe is written across every crease.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.
Original Artwork by Lena Moses Schmitt.