Wednesday, September 14, 2016

From lab girl to lab woman

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, scientists, botany, autobiographies, memoirs

The stereotype of a career scientist is of someone rather dour, square, dispassionate, and driven; one who cannot be deterred; someone who knew what he (rarely she) wanted in a career and thus majored in a chosen field, obtained degrees (at least two or three), excelled at research, obtained a university position, published (and published and published), obtained tenure, and eventually has come to rule a scientific domain as an √©minence grise (best translation: "grizzled crag"). A straight line from birth to near-godhood.

Ha! Not in my experience!! The few grizzled crags I've known were either really harsh SOB's who attained eminence while leaving behind a trail of shattered foes, or (much better!) perpetual children who still aren't sure just what they want to be when they grow up, but have mightily enjoyed the ride along the way. The best scientists breathe curiosity, emit questions with every breath, and seldom take anything for granted. They know that great discoveries frequently began when someone said, "That's funny! What IS that?"

But the one adjective above that is accurate is "driven". Driven to know, driven to find out what and how and perhaps even why. Driven to learn endlessly and hoping, if not to find ultimate truth, to carve a new step or two along the path. Sometimes they know this for what it is. Sometimes not. Either way, a scientist worth knowing seems always to have a twinkle in his or her eye.

Getting to know Hope Jahren through her memoir/odyssey Lab Girl, it seemed at first that her dour Minnesota Scandanavian upbringing might have squashed all the twinkle out of her. She remembers her mother as unendingly stern and undemonstrative, and nearly always angry. But as we learn of her own nearly catastrophic level of bipolarity, and that she hints how it ran in her family, a more sympathetic picture emerges: that her mother kept herself under supremely strict control, not liking it but seeing no other way. The twinkle was suppressed in order to conform to the stultifying reserve inherent in the Minnesotans. Too bad they didn't run into Garrison Keillor very early on! He showed the fun under the stiff collar. Clearly, Dr. Jahren had twinkle enough left in her to have a stellar scientific career. But it came slowly, laboriously.

Lab Girl is half memoir and half an introduction to the botany of trees. At first, a chapter on herself and her life alternates with one on the growth of a seed, a sprout, a sapling. By the end of the book, the segments begin to mix. Dr. Jahren has become the tree she writes about, having survived stage by stage of growth, succeeding in spreading her canopy to take in enough sun to thrive.

We look on human life as though success were a right, a given; that "infant mortality" were an aberration; that poverty of body and soul ought to be rare. The mathematics of reproduction in a forest are grim: A tree produces millions of seeds yearly, and at the end of a life that may be no more than 25 years for a Mimosa or as long as hundreds to thousands of years for oaks and redwoods, if two of those seeds have sprouted, grown, and become mature trees, that counts as reproductive success. We count it unusual for a baby or child to die. But even in this most "enlightened" part of Western culture, we pay little attention when dreams die, when millions labor at nearly useless "work", when the bad (i.e. paranoid) kind of "grizzled crag" crushes the hopes of one perceived opponent after another, whether in science, business, art, governance, or industry.

For much of Dr. Jahren's career she was frequently, almost constantly, in danger of being crushed by more established fellow scientists. Like a sapling in a forest, frequently overshadowed and starved of sunlight, she had to struggle to make her way. But make it she did. And I don't think she is at the peak of her career. Perhaps writing this book indicates that she has a nagging suspicion that she has indeed peaked. Not likely. She has too much drive, too much spunk.

Her blog is hopejahrensurecanwrite.com, and I agree, she sure can write! She writes so well, it might actually be a negative in the eyes of some. My younger brother, now an established professor, was denied admission to a History department's PhD program largely because of jealousy: he was already a published author with a very readable writing style, and history professors are well known for writing either badly or abominably. His "judges" felt diminished in his presence. So he got into an Archaeology school instead and the rest is (giggle) history! However, as Hope Jahren tells us, early on she became proficient at writing "a language few read and nobody speaks", the dry, ultra-precise prose of the scientific article or monograph. Rather than let it stultify her popular writing, she learned to use the lessons of scientific writing to sharpen and brighten it. Thus, when she isn't trying to impress a granting agency, she writes sparkling, need I say, twinkling, prose. I think she has another book or few in her. I hope so.

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