Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
When Hope Jahren was growing up in rural Minnesota, her family “didn’t much go in for talk”, said Rachel Cooke in the New Statesman. Snow lay on the ground for nine months of the year, and no one really discussed anything. No wonder Jahren gravitated to the laboratory of her father, a science teacher; it was for her a “sanctum”, a place whose secrets “made bad weather and failures of human communication alike irrelevant”. In this “singular” memoir, Jahren, now professor of
geo-biology at the University of Hawaii, tells the story of her life in science, recounting the cerebral excitements along with the practical challenges, such as how to build up a lab from scratch. In addition, punctuating Jahren’s own story are “fiercely tender” essays about plants, which read as if she were “introducing us to an awkward friend, the point of whom is not immediately apparent”. In her hands, seeds aren’t only fertilised embryos but “repositories of hope, the very definition of stoicism”. These sections are “transformative”.
Jahren’s memoir really stands out for its “behind-the-scenes” depictions of the scientific life, said Helen Pearson in The Guardian. She shows that research is “no smooth path of hypothesis, test and conclusion”. It’s a human endeavour involving “friendship, jealousy, discrimination and exhaustion”; and in Jahren’s case, two near-fatal car crashes, and periods of acute mania and depression. As a woman scientist, Jahren has also had to confront her share of sexism. The main theme of Lab Girl is “survival: in science, in life, in love”, said Lucie Green in The Observer. “In these pages you’ll find a renewed interest in the natural world and notice things that have been hidden in plain sight.” Read this book, and “you will never feel the same way” about leaves, trees and soil again.