Hope Jahren’s memoir about becoming a biogeoscientist – someone who studies the deep geologic history of plant life on Earth – is the biggest surprise bestseller of the year. Modestly titled lab girl, it’s the story of how Jahren escaped a working-class town to become a young scientist in the high-tech labs at UC Berkeley and Georgia Tech. It’s also a fascinating introduction to how plants survive, even though they can never run from danger. But above all, it’s a crazy adventure about two broke nerds, Jahren and her lab technician Bill Hagopian, who somehow scrape together enough money and spare parts to build lab instruments unlike anything the scientific world had ever seen. You can’t put this book down, and that’s a trait rarely found in a non-fiction book about science.
Radio Shack lab
Jahren and Hagopian met when she was a graduate student and helped lead a class where he was an undergrad learning about fieldwork. Of all the students in the class, Hagopian’s work was the most meticulous, but he also sprinkled his lab notes with weird jokes that only Jahren found amusing. They became fast friends and when she got her first job as an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, she offered him a job as a lab technician. Paying Hagopian a salary close to the poverty level took away most of her National Science Foundation grant money. So the two spent several years on cheap pizzas, worries, and candy bars, saving all their money to build the Jahren Lab. Their goal is to simulate atmospheres of Earth’s past and then grow plants in those atmospheres to understand how life forms survive dramatic changes in the molecular composition of the air they breathe. This is clearly relevant to the current carbon load in our atmosphere, but it also helps scientists understand what our planet looked like hundreds of millions of years ago, when carbon and oxygen levels were very different from today.
In lab girl, Jahren describes how in her early years she perfected a technique for blowing glass bubbles full of otherworldly atmospheres, while Hagopian lives out of his van and designs sophisticated growth chambers. Without a lot of money, the two have to collect parts to use in their lab from the trash cans of other labs – and, of course, from Radio Shack. Speak against Ars on the phone from her current lab at the University of Hawaii, Jahren said, “If we can’t get a controller from a catalog, we go to Radio Shack. We love Radio Shack. Being able to jerry-rig things is super satisfying.” even more challenging was going to scientific conferences to present their work. In a memorable scene, Jahren and Hagopian “borrow” the Georgia Tech lab truck and drive across the country to San Francisco for the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. They had so little money that all their meals for several days came from a cooler full of lunch meats. It all backfired when one of their graduate students crashed the van, sending the cooler’s somewhat raunchy contents flying in all directions. Still, Jahren managed to clean up and make it to San Francisco on time – only to be yelled at by one of her colleagues that her hypotheses were flat out wrong.
Two Fullbrights and several other prestigious awards later, Jahren is optimistic about the memory. But we can still feel her anger and how these setbacks only made her more committed, forcing her to prove that we can use carbon isotope analysis on plant fossils to reverse engineer past atmospheres on Earth. There is a strong emotional, personal element to it lab girl that reminds us how scientists are just as passionate about their research as artists are about their creations.
Today, Jahren and Hagopian are as DiY with their instrumentation as ever, although the Jahren Lab in Honolulu is funded at a much more comfortable level. Jahren told Ars that they still buy a lot of their equipment from Radio Shack and Home Depot and they learn a lot about building their greenhouses through YouTube videos aimed at pot growers. “Our grow chambers are Plexiglas boxes about the size of a bookshelf, and we can control greenhouse gas levels, light and humidity based on moment-to-moment fluctuations,” she said. “It’s not easy when you have a living organism there that is actively providing feedback. They’re under a positive pressure there and the atmosphere changes about every 10 minutes.” She laughed because she went to grow shops where “we’re the most innocent thing they’ve seen in days.” But “they have good advice for growing things inside,” using everything from small pieces of Tupperware to vaporizers. And the results are excellent. “We can put the greenhouse gases in or wash them out,” Jahren said proudly. “And we’re the only lab that can do that to this degree.”
One of the ways Jahren interweaves her scientific story with her personal one is by including chapters on plant life cycles that provide a counterpoint to her own story. When she grows up, we learn how seeds work; when she has a baby, we learn how plants reproduce. As a result, we are forced to see how vastly different plants are from us – and also the unexpected ways in which they show signs of consciousness that are a distant echo of our own. While scientists are afraid to anthropomorphize plants, making them inaccurately appear human-like, Jahren says she decided to break that rule “unaudaciously.” Without any anthropomorphization, “you fall back on scientific language and just talk to other scientists.” In addition, she asked: “Where is the word that describes a plant doing something like remembering? A plant indeed recalls data obtained in the past and recalls it in the present. What is the word for? There is an annoying gap between human language and scientific language.”
She added that plants can have some form of consciousness:
There’s tons of scientific evidence that they take in information about the world and that their biological activities depend on that information in real time. Isn’t that what our consciousness actually breaks down into? So I think if you look up the words in the dictionary and you compare it to scientific evidence, by strict definition they do indeed have consciousness. Do they do it the same way we do it? No. Do they have a brain, spinal cord, and sensory nerve endings? No no no. Science is in the baby stage of figuring out what they do have. What is it? The fact that we’re so enamored with that question is telling. At the heart of it is this age-old dilemma of how to co-exist with something and exploit it at the same time. You do that by de-animating it; you say it’s a thing. But it’s not a thing. It’s alive. That ambiguity will never go away, even if I break all the rules and say things like plants “remember,” “know,” and “choose.” Those are all words we reserve for animated entities for which we recognize an ethical responsibility. That’s why that question is so tacky.
Jahren suggests we always remember this “sticky” question, especially since we depend on plants for everything from building materials to fuel. She urges her readers to plant a tree and think about the balance we want to find between “coexisting” and “exploiting” plants.
Working class science
Towards the end of lab girl, we understand how important Jahren and Hagopian’s work has been to biogeoscience, but we also track the progress of their unusual friendship. At one point, Jahren wonders if they are soul mates or siblings. Their non-sexual but intimate friendship cannot be pigeonholed, and it provides a model for the kind of relationships that men and women will ideally become more likely to engage in as the gender balance in the sciences becomes evener. But it’s not just their cross-gender friendship that Jahren wants to celebrate. Hagopian, she says, is like many people who work in science, “geniuses with instrumentation in technology, [but who] I don’t want to be a professor and give lectures.’ She hopes that these “true heroes” can be celebrated in a more public way and that their contributions can be recognized as key to scientific progress. “It took an entire book to show the heroism of someone unusual,” she said.
Jahren also worries that we are “starving science to breaking point”. As she reveals in her book, there are many talented scientists who never get the chance to do science full-time. She hopes we can use institutions like the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund more basic research and that her book can show people what it’s really like to do science when there’s almost no money to do it. “You could double the NSF’s funding and still be nowhere near wasting a penny,” she said. “Their funding requests are not lavish.”
After reading lab girl, you’re probably looking at the world of science in a whole new way. Yes, there is some kind of magic in it, especially when you find out what the “consciousness” of plants looks like and how the Earth’s atmosphere has changed over time. But it’s also a job, and a tough one, because there’s less and less money to go around. Jahren may have escaped her working-class town, but as a scientist she will never quite escape the fear of poverty. She and Hagopian have built their lab and live under the assumption that they are only one paycheck away from going back to that van full of cheap luncheon meat. Their discoveries may change the way we understand the world, but the world will have to change for those discoveries to come.