Lab Girl

Growing up, Hope Jahren “Never heard a story about a single living female scientist,” she writes, “never met one or even saw one on television.” Born and raised in a rural Minnesota town built around a meat-processing plant and defined mostly by its brutal winters and Scandinavian restraint, she assumed that the grim endurance of her Norwegian-immigrant ancestors was her legacy. (“I suspected that they hadn’t relocated to the coldest place on Earth and then taken up disemboweling pigs because things were going well in Europe, but it never occurred to me to ask.”)

She did turn out to be tenacious, though not exactly in the way she had pictured: Long hours spent entertaining herself as a child in her physics-teacher father’s work space piqued Jahren’s interest in science, and her housewife mother’s unhappiness propelled her to pursue higher education all the way to a UC Berkeley Ph.D. Today, she’s an internationally renowned geobiologist with three Fulbrights, her own world-class laboratory at the University of Hawaii, and a Wikipedia page longer and starrier than most U.S. senators’.

Lab Girl is her warm, witty recounting of the near half century of adventures, setbacks, and detours that brought her from there to here. But even more than that, it’s a fascinating portrait of her engagement with the natural world: Alternating personal anecdotes with brief chapters that read like especially pithy TED Talks—no doubt honed by years of teaching easily bored undergrads—she investigates everything from the secret life of cacti to the tiny miracles encoded in an acorn seed, studding her observations with memorable sentences like “You may think a mushroom is a fungus. This is exactly like believing that a penis is a man.”

Also central to the book is her friendship with an eccentric colleague named Bill who becomes her fellow plant-obsessive, platonic soul mate, and (sometimes literal) partner in crime. Her accounts of their ongoing dialogues can feel more clumsy than profound, but Jahren’s singular gift is her ability to convey the everyday wonder of her work: exploring the strange, beautiful universe of living things that endure and evolve and bloom all around us, if we bother to look. A–

MEMORABLE LINES “A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the three-hundred-year-old oak tree that towers over it.”

Lab Girl
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