My stepfather got his doctorate with a thesis on the purple pigment of the octopus. I never did find out what aspect of the pigment attracted him. He never followed up on his colorful mollusc; instead, he spent his life as a gypsy scientist. He gave emphysema to monkeys; he interviewed pilots in Vietnam; he designed gyroscopes; he worked on a public health project in Ethiopia.
In his spare time, he tinkered. At the suggestion of his mother, he designed a a coffee table on wheels with handles on each side. String was attached to the handles, so guests at a cocktail party could pull it toward them and thereby get cheese and crackers without getting up. In his later years, he designed and patented five devices for Scuba divers. Scuba was his passion well into his eighties.
Sound like a cool guy, doesn’t he? He wasn’t.
We lived half a block from Cal Tech, and before my mother remarried we took in students as boarders. They were very quiet, even shy, although when they would talk, the words came pouring out in a bubbling fountain of opinions, schemes and (almost inevitably) reasons why popular beliefs were wrong, wrong, wrong.
There are of course suave scientists, fashionable scientists, society scientists. But mostly not; mostly the lures of status and unearned admiration are treated as irrelevant to the process.
I found out that many scientists are quiet not because they have nothing to say; they just haven’t been socialized enough to understand how ordinary people modulate their opinions and their passions to suit the requirements of casual conversation. Rather than robotic data processing humanoids, they are in fact too passionate about the deep mysteries of nature. Everything is open to question, because science is about questions. It’s about refining the quality of the questions, and gathering information in often frighteningly intense ways, involving numbers in numbing array. Scientists are connected to the natural world in ways the rest of us can only imagine.
So there’s a subculture. Let’s call it a geek thing; it’s a imprecise term, but it’ll do. There’s geek habits (staying up all night in the lab); geek working conditions (muddy is good; muddy and cold is better); geek humor. I can’t describe geek humor, but I know it when I see it. There are, for instance, engineer jokes. This one is hoary, but enjoy it anyway:
Three condemned prisoners, a priest, a soldier and an engineer, were sentenced to the guillotine. Given the option to face away from the blade or toward it, each chose to face upward. The blade failed to fall for the priest, so he was released. It failed to fall for the solider, and he was released. The engineer lay face up for his turn. “I think I see your problem,” he said.
Heedless curiosity; that’s the mark of a true geek.
I had never read a book that described the scientists that I knew. Science books are often done by professional science writers, who (sometimes) explain the topic under examination with clarity and wit. But something is missing: the sense of what science is like. Scientists writing often describe their triumphs and failures (indeed, compassionate and impassioned books by surgeons is a whole sub-category), but usually the experiences are mediated by something, the urge not to bore or shock the reader, or the need to find a moral, a cheap nugget of uplift among the tales told.
All of which brings me to “Lab Girl”, a really excellent book by Hope Jahren, a geobiologist currently at the University of Hawaii. She’s something of a big deal in scientific circles (she’s won three Fulbrights) but not any kind of pop culture figure — no TV shows, no TED talks. But she sure can write about what science feels like, and what a scientist’s life looks like.
“Lab Girl” is surprisingly intense. Jahren is passionate about plants. “So humor me for a minute, and look out your window. What did you see?…Did you see something green? If you did, you saw one of few things left in the world that people cannot make. What you saw was invented more than four hundred million years ago near the equator. Perhaps you were lucky enough to see a tree. The mining of the atmosphere, the cell-laying, the wax-spackling, plumbing, and pigmentation took a few months at most, giving rise to nothing more or less perfect than a leaf.”
And she’s willing to look at that leaf for as long as it takes.
There are plant facts scattered about the prose. Trees have memory; did you know that? It’s a proven fact now, and Jahren was one of the people who helped prove it. But mostly it’s about the process, the loneliness, the overnight lab sessions, the excitement of finding stuff out. She describes her relationship with Bill, her lab partner for more than 20 years, a geek soulmate whose laconic sarcasm and unspoken dedication to the data, to the science, gives her nourishment. They choose to live like this, poor, living on coffee and pizza, running tests again and again, and going on road trips to muck through a swamp or dig unremarkable rocks out of the desert. The discomfort is part of the science; it’s proof that the passion is real.
Twenty years together, and never a whiff of romance, says Jahren. It was a strictly platonic love affair, or maybe a threesome — Hope, Bill, and science. The love is somewhere in there, and the love is relatively uncomplicated. Her tribute to Bill at the end of the book is heartfelt and complete.
Jahren’s personal story is complex. The way she chooses to present the facts is brilliant; I won’t spoil any of it. I hate reviews that just retell the entire story; I’m all for raw emotion and multiple surprises. “Lab Girl” is remarkable for its honesty.
Have you gotten the idea that I want you to read this book? I don’t know anyone associated with it. I got it because of a review, but by the time it arrived I had forgotten the review, and was uncertain why I ordered it. Three chapters in, I had a dawning appreciation of what was about to happen.
Scientists, like journalists, are under attack just now. Like journalists, they think the truth is important, that facts are all we have between us and chaos. But facts don’t seem to carry the weight the way they used to; “belief systems” are now all the rage, even if what people believe in their little systems is demonstrably untrue. Jahren is distressed and incensed by deforestation; each year, she says, we cut down one percent of the total forests on earth, a land area the size of France.
And what happens when the trees are all gone? We don’t exactly know, but it won’t be good.
But I’m editorializing. “Lab Girl” is not a polemic; it’s an autobiography, written by a woman with a unique ability to bridge the gap between scientists and the rest of us. And it’s poetic in the best possible sense; her prose is not purple but always, always, a dense dark green.
Photography by Tracy Johnston
Unheeded advice and heedless experiments by Michelle Mizera