Friday, March 10, 2017

One Hope for Science

Review by Bill Doughty

Dr. Hope Jahren asks us to plant a tree while she plants a forest of ideas in this remarkable book. Part autobiography in the very cool shade of science essays, "Lab Girl" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016 by A. Hope Jahren), is a perfect book for Women's History Month.

Michiko Kakutani compares Jahren's style of poetry and scientific imagination to Oliver Sacks and Stephen Jay Gould. I smiled – and laughed – at passages that sounded like Mary Roach. And I read and reread beautiful passages that brought E.O. Wilson and Rachel Carson to mind.

But, to be clear, Hope Jahren is a unique voice, humble but fearless in what she reveals. This book that is ultimately an extended love letter to the world, to life, to "the transcendent value of loyalty," and to her imagined granddaughter.

I enjoy reading short chapters of "Lab Girl" to my young grandkids. Here's an excerpt from her chapter on seeds (and more):
"A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance to take its one and only chance to grow ... Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited."
Anomalocaris pictured in a Cambrian sea.
Here's a passage the kids and I enjoyed that sets the stage for life on earth – before plants. This one sent us to Google for a look-see at Anomalocaris and a sidebar to YouTube to see how the history of the earth can be understood using a football field, thanks to NPR's Skunk Bear. Just sharing.
"For several billion years, the whole of the Earth's land surface was completely barren. Even after life had richly populated the oceans, there is no clear evidence for any life on land. While herds of trilobites wallowed on the ocean floor, preyed upon by Anomalocaris – a segmented marine insect the size of a Labrador retriever – there was nothing on land. Sponges, mollusks, snails, corals, and exotic crinoids maneuvered through nearshore and deepwater environments – still nothing. The first jawed and jawless fishes appeared and radiated into the bony forms we know today – still nothing ... Sixty million more years passed before there was life on land that constituted any more than a few single cells stuck together within the cracks of a rock. Once the first plant did somehow make its way onto land, however, it took only a few million years for all of the continents to turn green, first with wetlands and then with forests."
Gorilla at Monkey Jungle
Dr. Jahren is heart-achingly honest and belly-achingly funny in describing roadtrips, the Monkey Jungle, dancing at a glacier, finding something special in hackberry seeds, finding love, being pregnant, and confronting mortality.

Along most of the way she introduces us to  her fraternal soulmate, fellow scientist and lab partner, Bill. We get a bit of history about Armenia and Norway, as relates to Bill's and Hope's families respectively.
Another theme of this book is self-awareness and self-acceptance, as expressed in this found haiku about her life's confusing and sometimes unstable path toward enlightenment:

being what you are
while knowing that it's more than
people want to see
In advice for any parent, leader, scientist or sailor, Jahren writes, "People are like plants. They grow toward the light."
Her writing is often pure poetry in prose:
"In Minnesota, the spring thaw happens all at once when the frozen ground yields to the sun in one day, wetting the spongy soil from within. On the first day of spring, you can can reach into the ground and easily pull up great, loose clumps of dirt as if they were handfuls of too-fresh devil's food cake and watch the fat pink earthworms come writhing out and fling themselves joyfully back into the hole. There is not even a hint of clay within the soils of southern Minnesota; they have lain like a rich black blanket over the limestone of the region for a hundred thousand years ... but the growing season is short, so there's no time to be wasted."
In "Lab Girl" we travel with indefatigable Jahren to her birthplace in Minnesota to places like California, Alaska, the American South, Maryland, Norway and Ireland, then finally to her new home and lab – often the same thing – at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, where she was a tenured professor when "Lab Girl" ends.

Among her studies and achievements: In 2009 she and her team were in the third year of conducting forensic analysis of chemical aftermath of a terrorist attack. "Our idea was to compare, and perhaps link, the chemical fingerprint of post-blast residue with that of the chemical traces gathered from surfaces where the explosives might have been constructed – a kitchen countertop, for example." She achieved success with "a definite dataset, made with integrity and interpreted honestly."
What makes this book so perfect for Women's History Month is the inspiring story behind Jahren's success as a woman in the traditionally man's world of science. She overcame significant roadblocks and obstacles – with toughness, grit and her namesake optimism.

Jahren writes about being stereotyped and second-guessed – knee-deep in chauvinism in a male-dominated world.
"Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can't possibly be what you are."
Global climate change and the urbanization of the planet is a big concern for Jahren. "Viewed from space, our planet appears less green with each passing year," she warns. And, "Humans are actively creating a world where only weeds can live and then feigning shock and outrage upon finding so many."

Baobob tree at University of Hawaii, Manoa.
In a recent study, Jahren and her team are showing that sweet potatoes can grow larger as carbon dioxide increases as predicted for the next several hundred years. 
"This is not a surprise. We also saw that these big potatoes were less nutritious, much lower in protein content, no matter how much fertilizer we gave them. This was a bit of a surprise. It is also bad news, because the poorest and hungriest nations of the world rely on sweet potatoes for a significant amount of dietary protein. It looks as if the bigger potatoes of the future might feed more people while nourishing them less. I don't have an answer for that one."
Hope Jahren takes a clear-eyed look at the real longterm threats to our world and breathes beauty into the nature of reality (and reality of nature) with practical advice: "plant a tree."

This is another book I heard about on the great podcast, Tom Ashbrook's "On Point."