Read Lab Girl Online

Authors: Hope Jahren

Lab Girl



Copyright © 2016 by A. Hope Jahren

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., Toronto.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Knopf Canada and colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Jahren, Hope.

Title: Lab girl / Hope Jahren.

Description: First edition. | New York : Alfred A Knopf, 2016. | “A Borzoi Book.” | Includes bibliographical references.

Identifiers: LCCN 2015024305 | ISBN 9781101874936 (hardcover : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781101874943 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Jahren, Hope. | Biologists—United States—Biography. | Geobiology—Research—Anecdotes.

Classification: LCC QH31. J344 A3 2016 | DDC 570.92—dc23 LC record available at​2015024305

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Jahren, Hope, author

Lab girl / Hope Jahren.

Includes bibliographical references.

Issued in print and electronic formats.

ISBN 978-0-345-80986-5

eBook ISBN 978-0-345-80988-9

1. Jahren, Hope. 2. Women botanists—United States—Biography. 3. Women scientists—United States—Biography. 4. Manic-depressive persons—United States—Biography. I. Title.

QK31.J33A3 2016 580.92 C2015-907335-9

eBook ISBN 9781101874943

Lab Girl
is a work of nonfiction. To protect the privacy of others, certain names have been changed, characters conflated, and some incidents condensed.

Cover photographs by Jon Shireman

Cover design by Kelly Blair



Everything that I write is dedicated to my mother.

The more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.

—Helen Keller


People are always asking me why I don't study the ocean, because, after all, I live in Hawaii. I tell them that it's because the ocean is a lonely, empty place. There is six hundred times more life on land than there is in the ocean, and this fact mostly comes down to plants. The average ocean plant is one cell that lives for about twenty days. The average land plant is a two-ton tree that lives for more than one hundred years. The mass ratio of plants to animals in the ocean is close to four, while the ratio on land is closer to a thousand. Plant numbers are staggering: there are eighty billion trees just within the protected forests of the western United States. The ratio of trees to people in America is well over two hundred. As a rule, people live among plants but they don't really see them. Since I've discovered these numbers, I can see little else.

So humor me for a minute, and look out your window.

What did you see? You probably saw things that people make. These include other people, cars, buildings, and sidewalks. After just a few years of design, engineering, mining, forging, digging, welding, bricklaying, window-framing, spackling, plumbing, wiring, and painting, people can make a hundred-story skyscraper capable of casting a thousand-foot shadow. It's really impressive.

Now look again.

Did you see something green? If you did, you saw one of the 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. That tree was designed about three hundred million years ago. 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. There are about as many leaves on one tree as there are hairs on your head. It's really impressive.

Now focus your gaze on just one leaf.

People don't know how to make a leaf, but they know how to destroy one. In the last ten years, we've cut down more than fifty billion trees. One-third of the Earth's land used to be covered in forest. Every ten years, we cut down about 1 percent of this total forest, never to be regrown. That represents a land area about the size of France. One France after another, for decades, has been wiped from the globe. That's more than one trillion leaves that are ripped from their source of nourishment every single day. And it seems like nobody cares. But we should care. We should care for the same basic reason that we are always bound to care: because someone died who didn't have to.

Someone died?

Maybe I can convince you. I look at an awful lot of leaves. I look at them and I ask questions. I start by looking at the color: Exactly what shade of green? Top different from the bottom? Center different from the edges? And what about the edges? Smooth? Toothed? How hydrated is the leaf? Limp? Wrinkled? Flush? What is the angle between the leaf and the stem? How big is the leaf? Bigger than my hand? Smaller than my fingernail? Edible? Toxic? How much sun does it get? How often does the rain hit it? Sick? Healthy? Important? Irrelevant? Alive? Why?

ask a question about

Guess what? You are now a scientist. People will tell you that you have to know math to be a scientist, or physics or chemistry. They're wrong. That's like saying you have to know how to knit to be a housewife, or that you have to know Latin to study the Bible. Sure, it helps, but there will be time for that. What comes first is a question, and you're already there. It's not nearly as involved as people make it out to be.

So let me tell you some stories, one scientist to another.

Part One

in the world more perfect than a slide rule. Its burnished aluminum feels cool against your lips, and if you hold it level to the light you can see God's most perfect right angle in each of its corners. When you tip it sideways, it gracefully transfigures into an extravagant rapier that is also retractable with great stealth. Even a very little girl can wield a slide rule, the cursor serving as a haft. My memory cannot separate this play from the earliest stories told to me, and so in my mind I will always picture an agonized Abraham just about to almost sacrifice helpless little Isaac with his raised and terrible slide rule.

I grew up in my father's laboratory and played beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them. My father taught forty-two consecutive years' worth of introductory physics and earth science in that laboratory, nestled within a community college deep in rural Minnesota; he loved his lab, and it was a place that my brothers and I loved also.

The walls were made of cinder blocks slathered in thick cream-colored semigloss paint, but you could feel the texture of the cement underneath if you closed your eyes and concentrated. I remember deciding that the black rubber wainscoting must have been attached with adhesive, because I couldn't find any nail holes anywhere when I measured its whole length with the yellow surveying tape that extended to a full thirty meters. There were long workbenches where five college boys were to sit side by side, all facing the same direction. These black countertops felt cool as a tombstone and were made of something just as timeless, something that acid couldn't burn and a hammer couldn't smash (but don't try). The benches were strong enough for you to stand on the edge of and couldn't be scratched even with a rock (but don't try).

Evenly spaced across the benches were braces of impossibly shiny silver nozzles with handles that took all your strength to turn ninety degrees, and when you did the one that said “gas” did nothing because it wasn't hooked up, but the one that said “air” blew with such an exhilarating rush that you kind of wanted to put your mouth on it (but don't try). The whole place was clean and open and empty, but each drawer contained a fascinating array of magnets, wire, glass, and metal that were all useful for something; you just had to figure out what it was. In the cupboard by the door there was pH testing tape, which was like a magic trick only better because instead of just showing a mystery it also solved one: you could see the difference in color and thus pH between a drop of spit and a drop of water or root beer or urine in the bathroom but not blood because you can't see through it (so don't try). These were not kids' toys; they were serious things for grown-ups, but you were a special kid because your dad had that huge ring of keys, so you could play with the equipment anytime you went there with him, because he never, ever said no when you asked him to take it all out.

In my memory of those dark winter nights, my father and I own the whole science building, and we walk about like a duke and his sovereign prince, too preoccupied in our castle to bother about our frozen duchy. As my father prepared for class the next day, I would work backward through each canned experiment and demonstration, making sure the college boys would have the easy success toward which they were predisposed. We pored over the equipment and fixed what was broken, and my father taught me how to preemptively take things apart and study how they work, so that as they inevitably failed I'd be able to restore them. He taught me that there is no shame in breaking something, only in not being able to fix it.

At eight o'clock we would start our walk home, so I could be in bed by nine. First we'd stop by my father's tiny, windowless office, which was bare of decoration except for the pencil holder that I had made for him out of clay. From there we'd collect our coats, hats, scarves, and the other things that my mother had knitted for me because she had never had decent ones when she was a little girl. As I wrestled my sturdy boots over an extra pair of socks, the smell of warm, wet wool mixed with that of wood shavings as my father sharpened each of the pencils that we had dulled. He would then briskly button up his big coat and don his deerskin mittens and tell me to check that my hat was fully covering both of my ears.

Always the last to leave the building for the day, he would walk the halls twice, first to confirm that all the doors to the outside were locked, and then to turn off the lights, one by one, as I trotted along behind him, fleeing the pursuing darkness. Finally, at the back entrance, my father would let me reach up and swipe off the last set of light switches, and we'd walk outside. He'd pull the door shut behind us and then check it twice to make sure that the lock had set.

Thus sealed out into the cold, we'd stand on the loading dock and look up at the frozen sky and into the terminal coldness of space and see light that had been emitted years ago from unimaginably hot fires that were still burning on the other side of the galaxy. I didn't know any of the constellations that people used to name the stars above me, and I never asked what they might be, though I am certain that my father knew each one and the story behind it. We had long since established the habit of not speaking as we walked the two miles home; silent togetherness is what Scandinavian families do naturally, and it may be what they do best.

The community college where my father worked was situated at the western end of our little hometown, the incorporated portion of which spanned four miles from truck stop to truck stop. My three older brothers and I lived with our parents in a big brick house located south of Main Street, four blocks west of where my father had grown up in the 1920s, eight blocks east of where my mother had grown up in the 1930s, one hundred miles south of Minneapolis, and five miles north of the Iowa border.

Our path through town took us past the clinic where the same doctor who had delivered me occasionally swabbed my throat to test for strep infections, past the toothpaste-blue water tower that constituted the tallest structure in town, past the high school that was manned by teachers who had once been my father's students. When we passed under the eaves troughs of the Presbyterian church where my father and mother had their first date at a Sunday School picnic in 1949, were married in 1953, had me baptized in 1969, and where our family spent every Sunday morning without exception, my father would lift me up so that I could break off a thick icicle. I would kick it along like a hockey puck while we walked, and it would ring out every ten steps or so as it ricocheted off the sides of the hard-packed snowbanks.

We made our way down hand-shoveled sidewalks, past thickly insulated houses that sheltered families who were no doubt partaking of silences similar to our own. In almost every one of these houses lived someone that we knew. From playpen to prom, I grew up with the sons and daughters of the girls and boys whom my mother and father had played with when they were children, and none of us could remember a time when we all hadn't known each other, even if our deeply bred reticence kept us from knowing much about each other. It wasn't until I was seventeen and moved away to college that I discovered how the world is mostly populated by strangers.

When I heard a weary monster sighing on the other side of town, I understood that it was twenty-three minutes after eight o'clock and the train was pulling out of the factory, as it did every night. I heard the great iron brakes wrench and then relax as a string of empty tank cars started to drag northward, toward Saint Paul, where they would each be filled with thirty thousand gallons of brine. In the morning we would hear the train return, and the exhausted monster would again sigh as its burden was pumped into the bottomless reservoir of salt made necessary by the factory's continuous manufacture of bacon.

The train tracks ran north-south, isolating one corner of my little town, upon which still stands what is perhaps the most magnificent slaughterhouse of the Midwest. Starting at its killing chute, upwards of twenty thousand animals are processed for their meat every single day.

Mine was one of the few families I knew of that was not directly employed by the factory, but our extended lineage had worked there plenty. My great-grandparents, like practically everybody else's in that town, had come to Minnesota as part of a mass emigration from Norway that began in about 1880. And like everybody else in my hometown, this is pretty much all that I knew about my ancestors. I suspected that they hadn't relocated to the coldest place on Earth and then taken up disemboweling pigs because things were going well in Europe, but it had never occurred to me to ask for the story.

I never met my grandmothers—they had both died before I was born. I could remember my grandfathers, who had died when I was four and seven, respectively, but I couldn't remember any occasion when either of them had spoken directly to me. My father had been an only child, but I think my mother had more than ten siblings, many of whom I never met. Entire years passed between our visits with my aunts and uncles, even though some of them lived in the same small town that we did. I didn't much notice as my three older brothers grew up and left our home one by one, as it was not unusual for us to go days without finding anything to say to each other.

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 my father and I had crossed Fourth Street (or “Kenwood Avenue,” as he called it; he had learned the streets as a child in the 1920s, long before they were numbered, and never adopted the new system), we could see the front door of our big brick house. It was the house that my mother had dreamed of living in as a child, and after my parents were married they had saved for eighteen years in order to buy it. Despite my having walked briskly—it was always an effort to keep up with my father—my fingers were chilled such that I knew it would be painful when they warmed up. Once it gets to a certain point below zero, the thickest mittens in the world won't keep your hands warm, and I was glad that the walk was almost over. My father turned the heavy iron handle, pushed with his shoulder, and opened our oaken front door. We went inside the house, into a different kind of cold.

In the foyer, I sat down and wrestled off my boots, then began to molt coats and sweaters. My father hung our clothes in the heated closet, and I knew that they would be waiting for me, warm and dry, when it was time to walk to school the following morning. I could hear my mother in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher, the butter knives clanging together as she dropped them into the silverware drawer and then slammed it shut. She was always angry and I could never piece together why. With the self-focus peculiar to children, I convinced myself that it must be because of something that I had said or done. In the future, I vowed to myself, I would guard my words better.

I went upstairs, changed into my flannel pajamas, and put myself to bed. My bedroom faced south toward the frozen pond where I would spend all day Saturday ice-skating—if it had warmed up enough by then. The wool carpet was dusky-blue and the walls had been papered in complementary damask. The room had originally been designed for twin girls, with two built-in desks, two built-in vanities, and so on. On the nights when I couldn't sleep, I would sit at my window seat and trace the feathery ice crystals across the glass with my finger, trying not to look at the vacant seat in front of the other window where a sister should have been.

The fact that I remember so much cold and darkness from my childhood isn't surprising, given the fact that I grew up in a place where there was snow on the ground for nine months out of each year. Descending into and then surfacing from winter formed the driving rhythm of our lives, and as a child I assumed that people everywhere watched as their summer world died, confident in its eventual resurrection, having been tested so often within a crucible of ice.

Every year I saw the first stuttering flakes of September crescendo into the spilling white heaps of December, then petrify into the deep, icy emptiness of late February, eventually to be varnished as a grand, frictionless expanse by the stinging April sleet. Our Halloween costumes as well as our Easter dresses were sewn such that they could be worn inside our snowsuits, and Christmastime wrapped us in wool, velvet, and more wool. The one summertime activity that I remember vividly is working in the garden with my mother.

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 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, periodically chased off by glaciers. They are richer than any prefertilized potting soil that you can buy at the hardware store; anything will grow in a Minnesota garden, and there's no need to water or fertilize—the rain and the worms will supply everything that is needed—but the growing season is short, so there's no time to be wasted.

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