Book Reviews

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Vladimir Nabokov once observed that “a writer should have the precision of a poet and the of a scientist.” The geobiologist Hope Jahren possesses both in spades. Her engrossing new memoir, “Lab Girl,” is at once a thrilling account of her of her vocation and a gifted teacher’s road map to the secret lives of plants — that, at its best, does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.

Ms. Jahren, a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, conveys the utter strangeness of plants: these machines, “invented more than 400 million years ago,” that create sugar out of inorganic matter — wondrous machines upon which human life itself depends.

 

The more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.

—Helen Keller

LAB GIRL is a book about work and about love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about the discoveries she has made in her lab, as well as her struggle to get there; about her childhood playing in her father’s laboratory; about how lab work became a sanctuary for both her heart and her hands; about Bill, the brilliant, wounded man who became her loyal colleague and best friend; about their field trips – sometimes authorised, sometimes very much not – that took them from the Midwest across the USA, to Norway and to Ireland, from the pale skies of North Pole to tropical Hawaii; and about her constant striving to do and be her best, and her unswerving dedication to her life’s work.

 

Excerpt

THE LIFE OF A DECIDUOUS TREE is ruled by its annual budget. Every year, during the short months from March to July, it must grow an entire new canopy of leaves. If it fails to meet its quota this year, some competitor will grow into a corner of its previous space and thus initiate the long, slow process by which the tree will eventually lose its foothold and die. If a tree expects to be alive ten years hence, it has no alternative but to succeed this year, and every year after.

Let’s consider a modest, unremarkable tree—the one living on your street, perhaps. A decorative maple tree, about the height of a streetlight—not a majestic maple reaching its full height in the forest—a demure neighborhood tree that’s only one-quarter the height of its regal counterpart. When the sun is directly overhead, the little maple in our example casts a shadow about the size of a parking space. However, if we pluck off all the leaves and lay them flat, side by side, they would cover three parking spaces. By suspending each leaf separately, the tree has stacked its surface area into a sort of ladder for light to fall down. Looking up, you notice that the leaves at the top of any tree are smaller, on average, than the leaves at the bottom. This allows sunlight to be caught near the base whenever the wind blows and parts the upper branches. Look again and you’ll notice that leaves low in the canopy are of a darker green; they contain more of the pigment that helps each leaf absorb sunshine, allowing them to harvest the weaker rays that penetrate shade. When building foliage, a tree must budget for each leaf individually and allocate for each position relative to the other leaves. A good business plan will allow our tree to triumph as the largest and longest-living being on your street. But it ain’t easy, and it ain’t cheap.

 

In LAB GIRL, we see anew the complicated power of the natural world, and the power that can come from facing with bravery and conviction the challenge of discovering who you are.

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