In “Lab Girl,” geochemist Hope Jahren combines beautiful writing and a comprehensive scientific background to craft a beautiful memoir of a life spent figuring things out. Jahren appears Wednesday, April 13, at Town Hall Seattle.
Geochemist Hope Jahren writes with such flair that a reviewer is tempted to just move out of the way and quote her. Consider the top of page 64 in her new book, “Lab Girl” (Knopf, 290 pp., $26.95):
“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 … It’s inescapable: at this very moment, within the synapses of your brain, leaves are fueling thoughts of leaves.”
Deft and flecked with humor, “Lab Girl” is also a hybrid — a scientist’s memoir of a quirky, gritty, fascinating life punctuated by mesmerizing dispatches on botany. From the prologue on, a reader itches to call out fun facts to innocents nearby: “The average ocean plant is one cell that lives about twenty days. The average land plant is a two-ton tree that lives for more than one hundred years. ”
The author of “Lab Girl” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, in conversation with Sydney Brownstone at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.
“Lab Girl” makes mass spectrometers into art objects and quotes the King James Bible with glee. Like Robert Sapolsky’s “A Primate’s Memoir” or Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk,” it delivers the zing of a beautiful mind in nature.
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Jahren’s idiosyncratic path began 45 years ago in rural Minnesota, where her father taught science in a community college and her mother “had been both the poorest and the smartest girl in Mower County.” Young Hope grew up playing under, and then atop her father’s laboratory benches. He “taught me how to pre-emptively take things apart and study how they work, so that as they inevitably failed I’d be able to restore them.”
Adept with her hands, restless at school, Jahren tried to fulfill her mother’s squashed hopes of excelling in literature but strayed into the science labs instead. She paid for college partly by working scummy shifts in a hospital pharmacy, which she renders into a tour-de-force on dead-end work, a lifer named Lydia and quotations from “David Copperfield.”
The literary dabbling paid off. In fact, the mixing of C.P. Snow’s two cultures gives “Lab Girl” a bright spark, like playing tennis with an intriguing, ambidextrous friend.
For her doctorate, Jahren looked at hackberry tree seeds, so hard of shell they pass unscathed through snow or an animal’s gut. Jahren biochemically proved that hackberry pits are made of rock: opal. She has become expert in teasing out the traces of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen in fossilized plants, and their clues to climate history. Her skill at this — stable isotope analysis — led to three Fulbrights and the American Geophysical Union’s top two young investigator’s medals. She is the only woman to win both.
Still, her rocky, improvised path as a woman scientist forms the spine of “Lab Girl.” She defines sexism as “the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.” Her lab partner Bill, a sort of fraternal twin, carries the weight of emotional confederacy in this book.
“Like most people,” Jahren writes, she had a favorite childhood tree, a blue-tinged spruce. Her reader without such a memory is likely to bound outside and claim one. The “Lab Girl,” I suspect, would like nothing better.