Thursday, October 1, 2020

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

 Source of book: Borrowed from the library


I already had the book on my list, but the fact that President Obama put it on his “best of 2019” reading list was a point in its favor. You can see his reading lists from the past decade plus here. Good god, I miss having a president who actually read thoughtful stuff and wasn’t a fucking idiot. And that wasn’t a white supremacist, a bully, a chronic liar, and on. And I miss the days when I could think of friends and family as fundamentally decent people rather than defenders of evil and cruelty. Sigh. 


Well, anyway, I really enjoyed this book, and have generally found Obama’s reading list to be excellent. 


Lab Girl is a difficult book to classify, in large part because it isn’t just one thing. It is multiple things. The first is pretty obvious: it is an autobiography. Jahren tells of her life from childhood to her present life as a tenured professor and research scientist. That is a great story by itself, aided by Jahren’s excellent writing. It is also a pop-science book about plants; or at least part of a book. There are brief chapters throughout about various botanical subjects, most of which have been part of the research she has done. The book also contains a strongly compelling chapter on mental illness. Jahren doesn’t disclose until past halfway in the book that she is bipolar - but honestly, it is obvious from the beginning. When she is on, she is manic, which is one reason she is a good researcher. Navigating her self-destructive tendencies, particularly during a difficult pregnancy, is not easy for her, and the level of vulnerability she gives in the pages of the book is amazing. 


Finally, however, the book is the story of a relationship. From her postgraduate days, she has been the partner/employer/friend of Bill. To describe Bill as an assistant is to greatly undersell who he is. While Jahren has the funding and the position and Bill depends on her for his income (at least until he makes an unexpected bonus on a home he repairs), he is every bit the equal partner in the work they do. Plus, he is a shockingly intimate friend, the pinnacle, perhaps, of the platonic friendship. The relationship is unique and slightly uncomfortable for those of us who were raised with the idea that men and women couldn’t be close friends, because it would always turn sexual. I have since strongly rejected that idea - in part because of my experience of friendship with musical and legal colleagues that is both decidedly non-sexual and also important and dear to me. The relationship between Hope and Bill is more intense and intimate than mine, to be clear, but the difference is in degree, not kind. As a portrayal of an epic friendship and professional partnership, Lab Girl is outstanding. All the elements come together in a surprisingly coherent whole. 

Hope and Bill

There are so many passages that would be fun to mention, but here are the ones I decided to write about. First, Jahren grew up in a Scandinavian family in Minnesota. That’s kind of close to how my Swedish ancestors lived: emigrating in the 1880s, living in small farming communities, and so on. This description is fascinating. 


The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily. Can you imagine growing up in a culture where you can never ask anyone anything about themselves? Where “How are you?” is considered a personal question that one is not obligated to answer? Where you are trained to always wait for others to first mention what is troubling them, even as you are trained to never mention what is troubling you? It must be a survival skill left over from the old Viking days, when long silences were required to prevent unnecessary homicides during the long, dark winters when quarters were close and supplies were dwindling. 

While I was a child, I assumed that the whole world acted like we did, and so it confused me when I moved out of state and met people who effortlessly gave each other the simple warmth and casual affection that I had craved for so long. I then had to learn to live in a world where when people don’t talk to each other, it is because they don’t know each other, not because they do.


By the time I came along, our family had intermarried and loosened up a good deal. But I still heard stories of the old folks, and the incredible emotional reserve and lack of human connection that characterized their relationships with their descendants. 


One of the early hints of Jahren’s manic tendencies - as well as her attention to detail that served her well as a scientist - comes in her recollection of a tree from her childhood. 


Time has also changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not. 


That is the basis for the book, in a lot of ways. Jahren enjoys writing, as she admits, but she also wanted to memorialize the fleeting events of her life. 


I also want to mention the story of Jahren’s brief stint working in the pharmacy of the school hospital to pay her way through her studies. So much of her experience was familiar from my wife’s life as a nurse. Different departments, but plenty of overlap. 


Working in the hospital teaches you that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the sick and the not sick. If you are not sick, shut up and help. Twenty-five years later, I still cannot reject this as an inaccurate worldview. 


One could go further. One thing non-medical people do not understand - particularly middle class or higher people who have guaranteed paid sick leave - is that during a pandemic, medical professionals do not have the luxury of quarantining themselves. Joe White-collar, if exposed to Covid, will get to stay home and be paid while he waits to see if he has it. And if he comes back positive, he will be paid to stay at home until he is no longer contagious. Which is good, because we as a society don’t want him spreading it. (Note: in the US, this unfortunately does not apply to lower income people, who generally do NOT get paid to stay home sick. Which is one reason Covid has spread so quickly through service industry workers.) But for medical workers, our system cannot afford to just furlough them. My wife and colleagues are expected to work despite being sick with Covid, as long as it isn’t bad enough to make them unable to work. So, if she catches it, she will probably not be able to just stay home and rest. (Another note: she is not a risk for spreading it to patients. She would simply be assigned to Covid patients and use the usual means of preventing infection spread. Nurses are generally really good at that, which is one reason she has been caring for Covid cases for six months, without getting sick.) 


Throughout, there are some delightfully pithy observations about field work, and the subjects of study. 


While examining a ditch of interest, the student employed the six-hundred page Keys to Soil Taxonomy - a handy guide resembling a small phone book but much less interesting to read.


Or how about this one? 


You may think that a mushroom is a fungus. This is exactly like believing that a penis is a man. 


I laughed pretty hard at that one. 


For the most part, the science stuff was interesting and fun, but I knew a lot of it already - I keep up on stuff and love science. However, there was one which I hadn’t seen elsewhere, and that was the study about how Sitka Willow trees fought off tent caterpillars in the Pacific Northwest. It turns out, trees that survived the first onslaught began to create poisons in their leaves, so the second wave was much less severe. But it gets better! Trees in areas miles away that did not experience the first wave, also began to produce caterpillar poison. The distance was too great for root-to-root communication, but the trees are believed to have communicated via volatile organic compounds produced by the leaves and given off into the surrounding air. 


How about an incident involving Bill? This one is hilarious. A student (who eventually dropped out), left the draft of a “thesis” behind. 


Her parting gift to us was the draft of a “thesis” that had swollen grotesquely with each revision, and I kept arguing that it heralded an emergent literary style. Everything about it was ridiculous, from its fourteen-point Palatino font to the unfortunate fact that some of the pages had been shuffled upside down prior to binding. While we waited out my insomnia, I read a three-page paragraph of Marcie’s nonsense and followed it with a section of Finnegans Wake. Then I asked Bill to identify which one was which and to justify his determination through critical analysis. The night before, I had compared and contrasted the “Methods” section of The Book of Marcie with the famous “Lucky’s Think” monologue from Waiting for Godot. 


There are more serious sections too, of course. While Jahren doesn’t dwell on it, she does mention at various points the sexism that is endemic to the sciences. 


Then I cringed as, one by one, the people to whom I was being introduced sized me up and down, each of them wearing a look with which I was very familiar. It was the look that says, “Her? That can’t be right; there’s a mistake here somewhere.” 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. 


I imagine every woman in a “traditionally” male field has experienced the same sort of crap. Probably constantly. 


Jahren’s descriptions are so good throughout the book that she is able to make the arcane elements of science as it is done in practice come alive. An example of that is when she “inherits” a bunch of lab equipment from a colleague who is retiring. A lot of it is weird cobbled-together stuff for particular experiments. 


The bathroom and post office scales are two machines, each one cleverly designed to yield the same type of measurement, the same end through different means. We can keep focusing in on that spectrum: Let’s say we want to weigh two sets of atoms, and we’d like to be able to see which set is heavier doe to its random incorporation of a handful of extra neutrons. We need to build a machine. The good news is that we only need to build this machine once, since there’s no chance that anybody besides us will ever want this thing in their bathroom or government office. This frees us to make it as ugly, silly, unwieldy, and inefficient as we want to - we just need to improvise something that works for us. This is how scientific research instruments are built. 


The final quote I want to mention comes near the end. Jahren’s relationship with Bill is, as I noted, not a sexual or romantic one. Jahren does eventually get married, and has a son. Her husband, Clint, seems to be a rather great guy. He is a math genius sort, but also the sort of guy less focused on his career than she is. So, she moves them around based on her job, and he finds work where he can wherever she goes. He also is primary care for their child, and is really chill about her weird hours. Some of that is familiar to me - my wife is the primary career person in our marriage (which has been a life-saver during Covid, which has cut my income a lot, while her ICU experience has been in high demand.) It is nice to see it elsewhere too. (Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her husband did the same thing as well.) The thing is, the marriage works for them, despite it being different from the rigid gender roles so many want to force other humans into. And I love her description of their love. 


We love each other because we can’t help it. We don’t work at it and we don’t sacrifice for it. It is easy and all the sweeter to me because it is so undeserved. I discover within a second context that when something just won’t work, moving heaven and earth often won’t make it work - and similarly, there are some things that you just can’t screw up. I know that I could life without him: I have my own work, my own mission, and my own money. But I don’t want to. I really don’t want to. We make plans: he will share his strength with me and I will share my imagination with him, and in each other we will find a dear use for our respectively obscene surpluses. 


That rings so true for me as well. “We don’t work at it and we don’t sacrifice for it.” That isn’t to say that we truly don’t work for our family or sacrifice for the greater good. But we don’t sacrifice for our love for each other. Loving each other is not a sacrifice. It isn’t work. It is the reward for the work we do. This is one of the most damaging myths I was taught in Fundie subculture. There is this teaching that marriage is hard work, and love isn’t easy or natural, and that marriage is good, not because it makes life easier, but because it will make you a Better Person™ as you sacrifice your happiness for each other. 


This is bullshit. 


I mean, I know not all Fundies even have this kind of a horrible marriage. Although I sure have met a lot in my divorce practice. I mean, learning to be a giving rather than selfish person is a part of growing up, and couples do have to adapt to each other. And certainly, doing the hard work of becoming a decent human being is a prerequisite to a good relationship. Likewise, having kids IS hard work, and frustrating. Life itself can be frustrating and unfulfilling.


But loving and being in love and being intimate and stuff shouldn’t feel like hard work - it should feel like the one safe and happy and loving place in the world. And that IS what a good marriage or relationship feels like. 


Jahren is fortunate to have two such natural and rewarding relationships, and she is indeed grateful for what she has. 


As I mentioned at the start, I really enjoyed this book. Jahren is an excellent writer, and this book was clearly a labor of love for her. There is such a sense of joy and good will and love in this book. 


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