Love and learning are similar, in that they can never be wasted.
I could have been a lab girl. Except that I imagined my ‘lab’ would be the ocean. But after reading Lab Girl, I’m not so sure I would have been cut out for it. The amount of time, energy and dedication that has gone into Jahren’s career as a scientist is amazing and inspiring. And, even if you have never come anywhere close to being a lab girl (or boy) yourself, this book is worth reading.
Lab Girl illustrates what it takes to get to where Hope Jahren is today*, but there is also a lot more to it. She tells us about her lab partner, Bill, their unique relationship, and many of their adventures together. She talks about her bipolar disorder. She tells us stories about her experiments and what they mean to her. And she makes us curious about things we never knew we were curious about.
Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.
I think my favourite parts of the book are the alternating chapters in which she describes in detail how trees and other plants work. The book was not a quick read for me, because these sections had me slowing right down so that I wouldn’t miss anything, underlining like mad so that I could go back and remind myself of it all later. The placement of these chapters within the context of her own story, and the skillful way she writes about them, prevent them from being merely a biology lesson; instead they become a meditation on life.
People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science, because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.
In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.
These plants know that when your world is changing rapidly, it is important to have identified the one thing that you can always count on.
No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root..
The first real leaf is a new idea…
Hope and Bill have a unique relationship. He stuck with her through her whole messy career – getting started, being desperate for money and living off of crap for food and no where to live. This book is as much for him and about him as it is about Hope. She talks about the fun times they’ve had together over the years; road trips, research all over the globe, moving labs across the country, and living in a run-down camper van that barely works. Bill’s had a big role to play in this book and had some funny lines, but this one takes the cake (experimenting with moss, writing in his notebook):
Upon 20x magnification the fronds resemble Oscar the Grouch’s pubic hair.
Jahren also addresses bipolar disorder in this book. She dedicates a chapter to how bipolar disorder feels to her. The first paragraph gives you a good idea of how vividly she writes about it.
Full blown mania lets you see the other side of death. Its onset is profoundly visceral and unexpected, no matter how many times you’ve been through it. It is your body that first senses the urgency of a new world about to bloom. Your vertebrae seem to detach from one another and you elongate as if towards the sun’s light. You can’t hear above the sloshing roar of blood pushed through your head by some impossible sustained orgasm within your beating heart. For the next twenty-four, forty-eight, seventy-two hours you will have to yell to hear yourself over this whooshing. Nothing, nothing can be loud enough or bright enough or move fast enough. The world appears as if through a fish-eye lens; your view is fuzzy with sparkling edges. You have received a grand systemic injection of Novocain and your entire body tingles briefly before it becomes flaccidly foreign and unreal. Your raised arms are the fleshy petal of a magnificent lily bursting into flower. It deeply dawns on you that this new world about to bloom is you.
And it goes on… impossibly perfect. Pick it up just for this chapter alone (chapter 9).
Jahren’s dedication to her job and her life is inspiring, but in addition to that, her writing is wonderful, engaging, warm, and funny. She has a way with words, whether she is talking about nature, experiments, her love of science, the challenges of being a female scientist, Bill’s unfailing loyalty, love, bipolar disorder, her family, or giving birth to her son. I underlined so many passages in this book, mostly to do with the way nature works and why it’s so amazing. I’ve read about plants a lot in the past, but never in such a compelling and meaningful way; a way that shows how all living things are connected; a way that makes me want to learn more. I wish I could share them all with you, but since I can’t, I urge you to read the book yourself. Hope Jahren is smitten with nature and with life, and it’s contagious.
NOW GO PLANT A TREE!
*Jahren has received three Fulbright Awards: in 1992 for geology work conducted in Norway, in 2003 for environmental science work conducted in Denmark, and in 2010 for arctic science work conducted in Norway. In 2001, Jahren won the Donath Medal, awarded by the Geological Society of America. In 2005, she was awarded the Macelwane Medal, becoming the first woman and fourth scientist overall to win both the Macelwane Medal and the Donath Medal. Jahren was profiled by Popular Science magazine in 2006 as one of its “Brilliant 10” scientists. She was a 2013 Leopold Fellow at Stanford University‘s Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. In 2016, Time Magazine named her one of the world’s “100 Most Influential People. —Wikipedia
*Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review! All the quotes in this review are from an Uncorrected Proof.