November 29, 2022

Lab Girl

by Hope Jahren

The engaging autobiography of a paleo-botanist, Lab Girl is really the best portrait I know of the reality of contemporary research. Jahren is filled with doubts: the book opens with a dedication to Jahren’s mother, but it soon becomes clear that Jahren and her mother never got along. Jahren faces more than the usual share of academic obstacles, as she endures periodic episodes of psychosis in addition to conventional sexism on the way to tenure. Jahren emphasizes the poverty of so much contemporary science; through much of her career she was unable to pay her lab tech anything like a living wage, so he spent years teaching at major universities while sleeping in his car or under a lab bench. There’s a wonderful set-piece tribute to homemade scientific instruments, really the only thing I know that comes close to capturing the reality. “Do not over-tighten me,” says a tag on one fastener, a label of poetic conciseness to those of us who have been there.