I’ve spent much of the time since reading Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl in November pressing the book into the palms of anyone whom asks for recommendations. This is not because it is something tritely described as a science book which non-scientists can enjoy, as if this means it has been specially dumbed down. This book is not concerned with explaining scientific concepts about how the world works, which won’t attract a person not interested in thinking in causal mechanisms. Jahren is not concerned with detailed explanations of her work, instead the book starts prior to this and explores what draws us to look at the world with a curious mind, a thing we all inevitably do whatever our day job. It is more impressionist than explanatory, with the tautness and rhythm of literature, dealing with what drives a particular sort of person cram themselves into small lightless rooms with big questions and anxious hearts.
Lab Girl is Jahren’s autobiography of becoming and painfully establishing herself as a scientist. She works at the intersections of many disciplines and could be described as a plant geochemist, one of the few scientists who spend their time sifting and sorting data extracted from rock samples to constructing landscapes millions of years gone. I enjoyed this spotlight on an under-hyped branch of science whose way of looking at the living world we all should learn from. Jahren and her colleagues see with the panorama of the palaeontologist and the eye of the environmental scientist for the interplay of living and non-living and so understand the environment as ever shifting, the present world should not be taken for granted.
Jahren structures chapters about her life and work around short vignettes about how plants live. Though she writes of the “deep otherness” of plants, plant scientists do find that the organisms so often on their mind inevitably colours their experience of their own lives. The perils and the struggles of life as a plant mirrors Jahren’s as a scientist, a woman and a person with bipolar disorder. For instance, a chapter on the curious S-shaped growth curves of corn which suggests the traumatic process of making seed is followed by a chapter detailing Jahren’s pregnancy; the emotional turbulence of going off medication in the first two trimesters and in the final trimester being formally barred from her lab as a “liability”. This juxtaposition is more than metaphor. What Lab Girl does best is to convey what it is like to think like a scientist, to have your mind percolated by your subject matter and methods until you yourself become entwined within it.
This is not to say Lab Girl is a romantic account. There are numerous horror stories about funding struggles, scrabbling enough money to pay the salary of Bill, her career long collaborator who spent much of the early days sleeping in the lab or his car. Bill is Jahren’s colleague, but they act more like siblings than two professional.They spend blissful nights in the lab constructing experiments and defrosting hamburgers, pepped up on a steady stream of dark humour. Rather pleasingly, both Bill and the many Mass Spectrometers Jahren has had in her life appear far more frequently than her husband. But Jahren does not dismiss family life, a scene towards the end of the books sees her refer to the two halves of her heart, both full when she puts her son to bed and goes off to the lab to put the half given over to science to use. She doesn’t see either side of her life as detracting from the other, they are all components of what she is.
Jahren does not make her bipolar disorder explicit for the first part of the book, no doubt mirroring its emergence in her life,though this did mean it took me a while to realise that her long hours and nocturnal lab habits are not typical, and shouldn’t be purposefully emulated. I’m cautious around first person account of bipolar disorder as they can be interpreted as glamourising mania and making it desirable for people who don’t have bipolar, which it ultimately never is. Thankful, Jahren avoids this.
On the flip side, except for her pregnancy, her bipolar or the stigma associated with it does not seem to have subtracted from her career significantly. I suspect however that Jahren was of the first generation to do so in significant number, as they would be doubly perceived as irrational and unscientific for being mentally ill and women. Jahren discusses the sexism she has faced, and locates its burden to the “the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be who you are”, the knee-jerk assumption of what a scientist can be which affects more or less all but the white European, wealthy middle-aged able-bodied man.
Whilst the title suggests the book’s subject is the “girl”, I think Jahren intended the stress to be on the “lab” in which the girl happens to be in. Jahren grew up in her father’s lab, and sees the labs she has built over the world as her home, a refuge from the outside world where she can be herself. The book is a love letter to the physical and mental space to think, play and discover that a lab of one’s own brings to the female scientist in particular.
Lab Girl is not a The Double Helix style account of one extraordinary discovery, Jahren sees science as work and herself as “like an ant, driven to find and carry single dead needles [..] and then add them one by one to a pile so massive that I can only fully imagine one small corner of it”. Whilst a science appears to be progressing in leaps and bounds from the outside, as seen from the individual point of view science stagnant with your budget or regresses as your work is made irrelevant.Whiggish narratives are irrelevant or dangerous on a day to day basis, so Jahren explores the pleasure of her work itself; to try to understand the logic of plants, from the inside. But the moments of discovery are beautiful when they happen, such as the blissful moment when Jahren is standing in the lab in the sunrise thinking herself the only one in the world with a newly discovered gem of knowledge, making her “unique existentially”.
As a young woman with designs on making a (increasingly circuitous) route into research science, I have absorb Lab Girl not as a manual for being a scientist, but rather as a suggestion of a way of being as a scientist, a path already flattening down the grass. A path which shows the principle is possible, but does not dictate the route. But it is more important to me as a showing how a life scientist can draw upon their subject – these strange ways of being as a way to reflect upon your own life, to use the subjectivity of another as a way to root yourself in the chaotic seas of your own subjectivity.