Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is one of the most exquisite pieces of science writing I’ve ever read. Published April 5, the memoir quickly established itself on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, and rightfully so. As a researcher and professor of geobiology for the past 20 years, Jahren has earned accolades for her work investigating how living and fossil organisms are chemically linked to the global environment. She’s dedicated her life to learning about plants, and she speaks about them with a stunning, awe-inspiring passion.
From chapter seven:
The leaves of the world comprise countless billion elaborations of a single, simple machine designed for one job only — a job upon which hinges humankind. Leaves make sugar. Plants are the only things in the universe that can make sugar out of nonliving inorganic matter. All the sugar you have ever eaten was first made within a leaf. Without a constant supply of glucose to your brain, you will die. Period. Under duress, your liver can make glucose out of protein or fat — but that protein or fat was originally constructed from a plant sugar within some other animal. It’s inescapable: at this very moment, within the synapses of your brain, leaves are fueling thoughts of leaves.
A leaf is a platter of pigment strung with vascular lace. Veins bring water from the soil to the leaf, where it is torn apart using light. The energy produced from this tearing apart of water is what glues sugars together after they are fixed from the air. A second set of veins transports the sugary sap out of the leaf, down to the roots, where it is sorted and packaged for either immediate use or longer-term storage.
Whether you personally care about plants or not, you have to admit that woman sure can write about them. Her sentences are jam-packed with information, but it’s done with such elegance and parsimony you just want to luxuriate in them as long as possible. (The audio book is great for this, by the way. Jahren has a reading voice like a rocking chair: rhythmic, slow, a little creaky, a lot comforting.) The book isn’t “about” the author being a woman, but it’s certainly affected her experiences as a scientist, in big and small ways. The same holds true of her writing. Dude scientists don’t often compare willow trees to fairy tale characters, or leaf parts to decorative fabric. I’m so happy Jahren did.
Of course, not everyone has been thrilled. Lab Girl’s unique style has been criticized for being overly anthropomorphic. Jahren responds brilliantly:
Jahren says that her intent in writing this book was to reach “somebody else,” “somebody new.” Like me, she has complicated feelings about the push to get more women in STEM. “Every time that we tell people they need to be something different, we’re also telling them that what they are isn’t enough. …We have to believe that our girls are worth something regardless of what they grow into,” Jahren explained on the first stop of her book tour. Even so, she openly promotes the idea that scientists should make their work more easily accessible — which, in turn, will attract a broader range of people to the field.
Here’s Jahren with Big Think:
One of the themes I really loved in this book was chosen family. Though the novel starts with childhood memories of repairing equipment in the lab with her father and working in the garden in with her mother, her parents make few appearances after Jahren leaves her hometown. Instead, Jahren talks of “surrogate parents” Cal and Linda; her academic mentor, “Uncle” Ed; and Bill, the lab manager Jahren has built her career with, who she lovingly refers to as her “twin.” Their friendship is at the heart of this book, and in the epilogue, Jahren even asks readers to plant a tree and carve Bill’s name on it. “My name is carved into a bunch of our lab equipment, so why shouldn’t Bill’s name be carved into a bunch of trees?” writes Jahren.
Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.