Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (excerpts)

Preface. Here are some excerpts to give you a taste of how delightful and well written this book is, hope it inspires young women to go into science.  And something good to read when the grid goes down…

Warning: these are kindle notes meant to give you a sampling of her writing and how hard it is for a woman to succeed in science, plus interesting info about plants, trees, and other topics.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

Hope Jahren. 2017. Lab Girl. Vintage.

PEOPLE LOVE THE OCEAN. 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.

***

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% of this total forest, never to be regrown. That’s 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.

***

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.

***

When you go into a forest you probably tend to look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could. You probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting. They hope against hope for an opportunity that will probably never come.

When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.

The first real leaf is built using only a vague genetic pattern with nearly endless room for improvisation. Close your eyes and think of the points on a holly leaf, the star of a maple leaf, a heart-shaped ivy leaf, a triangular fern frond, the fingery leaves of a palm. Consider that there can easily be a hundred thousand lobed leaves on a single oak tree and that no two of them are exactly the same; in fact, some are easily twice as big as others. Every oak leaf on Earth is a unique embellishment of a single rough and incomplete blueprint.

Light equals life for a plant. As a tree grows, its lower branches become obsolete, too shaded by the newer ones above to be of any further use. A willow tree loads these used branches with reserves, fattens and strengthens them and then dehydrates their base such that they snap off cleanly and fall into the river. Carried away on the water, one out of millions of these sticks will wash up onto a bank and replant itself, and before long that very same tree is now growing elsewhere. What was once a twig will be forced to function as a trunk, stranded under conditions it had never considered. Every willow tree features more than ten thousand such snap-off points; it sheds 10 percent of its branches in this way every single year. Over the decades one—maybe two—of these will successfully take root downriver and grow into a genetically identical doppelgänger.

THE LIFE OF A DECIDUOUS TREE is ruled by its annual budget. Every year, during the short months from March to July, it must grow an entire new canopy of leaves. If it fails to meet its quota this year, some competitor will grow into a corner of its previous space and thus initiate the long, slow process by which the tree will eventually lose its foothold and die. If a tree expects to be alive ten years hence, it has no alternative but to succeed this year, and every year after.

Let’s consider a modest, unremarkable tree—the one living on your street, perhaps. A decorative maple tree, about the height of a streetlight—not a majestic maple reaching its full height in the forest—a demure neighborhood tree that’s only one-quarter the height of its regal counterpart. When the sun is directly overhead, the little maple in our example casts a shadow about the size of a parking space. However, if we pluck off all the leaves and lay them flat, side by side, they would cover three parking spaces. By suspending each leaf separately, the tree has stacked its surface area into a sort of ladder for light to fall down. Looking up, you notice that the leaves at the top of any tree are smaller, on average, than the leaves at the bottom. This allows sunlight to be caught near the base whenever the wind blows and parts the upper branches. Look again and you’ll notice that leaves low in the canopy are of a darker green; they contain more of the pigment that helps each leaf absorb sunshine, allowing them to harvest the weaker rays that penetrate shade. When building foliage, a tree must budget for each leaf individually and allocate for each position relative to the other leaves. A good business plan will allow our tree to triumph as the largest and longest-living being on your street. But it ain’t easy, and it ain’t cheap.

The leaves on our little maple, all taken together, weigh thirty-five pounds. Every ounce therein must be pulled from the air or mined from the soil—and quickly—over the course of a few short months. From the atmosphere, a plant gains carbon dioxide, which it will make into sugar and pith. Thirty-five pounds of maple leaves may not taste sweet to you and me, but they actually contain enough sucrose to make three pecan pies.

The pithy skeleton within the leaves contains enough cellulose to make almost 300 sheets of paper.

In order to accumulate all of the soil nutrients that 35 pounds of leaves require, our tree must first absorb and then evaporate at least eight thousand gallons of water from the soil. That’s enough to fill a tanker truck. That’s enough to keep 25 people alive for a year.

***

The NSF is a U.S. government agency, and the money that it provides for scientific research comes from tax dollars. In 2013, the budget of the NSF was $7.3 billion. For comparison, the federal budget allocation for the Department of Agriculture—the people responsible for supervising food imports and exports—was about three times that amount. Each year, the U.S. government spends twice as much on its space program as it does on all of its other scientists put together: NASA’s 2013 budget was more than $17 billion. And these discrepancies are nothing compared with the disparity between research and military spending. The Department of Homeland Security, created in response to the events of September 11, 2001, commands an annual budget that is fully five times larger than that of the entire NSF, while the Department of Defense’s mere “discretionary” budget comes to more than sixty times that sum.

***

One side effect of curiosity-driven research is the inspiring of young people. Researchers generally love their calling to excess, and delight in nothing better than teaching others to love it also; as with all creatures driven by love, we can’t help but breed. You may have heard that America doesn’t have enough scientists and is in danger of “falling behind” (whatever that means) because of it. Tell this to an academic scientist and watch her laugh. For the last thirty years, the amount of the U.S. annual budget that goes to non-defense-related research has been frozen. From a purely budgetary perspective, we don’t have too few scientists, we’ve got far too many, and we keep graduating more each year. America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it. Within environmental science in particular, we see the crippling effects that come from having been resource-hobbled for decades: degrading farmland, species extinction, progressive deforestation…The list goes on and on.

$7.3 billion sounds like a lot of money. Remember that this figure must support all curiosity-driven science—not just biology, but also geology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology, and the more esoteric forms of engineering and computer science as well. Because my work is about learning why plants have been so successful for so long, my research falls within the NSF’s paleobiology program. In 2013, the amount of funding that paleobiology gave out for research was $6 million. This is the entire annual budget for all of the paleontology research that happens in America, and the dinosaur-diggers predictably secure the lion’s share.

 

***

A vine that we know by the name “kudzu” arrived in Philadelphia as a gift from Japan to honor the 1876 centennial. Since that time kudzu has expanded to cover a total land area the size of Connecticut. Thick ribbons of kudzu embroider thousands of miles of highways in the American South. Kudzu thrives within the roadside ditches where we throw our beer cans and cigarette butts.

***

When I was separated from the lab, attending some seminar or conference, it was the series of twisted e-mails from Bill that held me fast to what I loved about my job, even while trapped with pasty middle-aged men who regarded me as they would a mangy stray that had slipped in through an open basement window. There’s a place somewhere where I am part of the in-group, I would remind myself as I stood alone with my buffet dish in some Marriott ballroom, apparently radiating cooties and so excluded from the back-slapping stories of building mass spectrometers during the good old days.

***

Each time I returned to Georgia Tech from traveling, I tried to throw myself into working even harder. I began to set aside one night a week as an all-nighter (Wednesdays) in order to complete the paperwork that went unattended while I served on committees tasked with documenting the potential obsolescence of chalkboards on campus. I learned that female professors and departmental secretaries are the natural enemies of the academic world, as I was privileged to overhear discussions of my sexual orientation and probable childhood traumas from ten to ten-thirty each morning through the paper-thin walls of the break room located adjacent to my office. By these means I learned that although I was in desperate need of a girdle, I was better off than one of the other female professors, who would never lose all that baby weight by working all of the time.

As hard as I worked, I just couldn’t get ahead. Showers became a biweekly ritual. My breakfast and lunch were reduced to a couple of cans of Ensure from the cases that I kept under my desk, and in desperation, I once threw one of Reba’s Milk-Bones in my purse so that I could gum it during a seminar, trying to keep peoples’ attention off of what I knew would be my growling stomach. The acne that I had never wrestled with as a teenager decided to make up for lost time with a magnificent debut, and I passed the workday biting my nails with ferocity. My brief forays into romance had convinced me that I would be relegated to love’s bargain bin; none of the single guys that I met could understand why I worked all of the time, and nobody wanted to listen to me talk about plants for hours, anyway. Everything about my life looked pretty well messed up compared with how adulthood had always been advertised to me.

***

Karen left us for the summer in order to accept a coveted internship at the Miami zoo, only to find that most of what zookeepers actually do amounts to pretty routine hygiene maintenance, and that the only thing worse than an animal that doesn’t appreciate this is one who does. Placed upon the lowest rung of the ladder, she was sent to work in the primate enclosure. Karen’s job was to apply anti-inflammatory cream to monkey genitalia, which were in need of daily soothing due to their constant and indiscriminate use. Once the monkeys had recognized her as their new vehicle of relief, they began mobbing her when she entered the room. Bill and I could hardly absorb this story when she told it to us, it was just too wonderful, but it got even better. It turns out that it is a hard-hearted monkey indeed that remains unmoved during a good slathering of bacitracin, and most monkeys proved considerably more responsive to her reluctant manipulations.

The zoo had fitted Karen with a protective plastic shell meant to discourage her charges from clutching on to her and wildly humping her frame, but it wasn’t 100 percent effective. On the upside, her many animal behavior classes had provided her with the intuition necessary to condition these monkeys to the concept of a glory hole; the downside was that seeing them lined up and “standing at attention” through a chain-link fence first thing in the morning was enough to make her rethink a career in veterinary medicine altogether. She returned to our lab after the internship having decided that maybe botany wasn’t so boring after all.

***

A CACTUS DOESN’T LIVE in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet. Any plant that you find growing in the desert will grow a lot better if you take it out of the desert. The desert is like a lot of lousy neighborhoods: nobody living there can afford to move. Too little water, too much light, temperature too high: the desert has all of these inconveniences ratcheted up to their extremes. Biologists don’t much study the desert, since plants represent three things to human society: food, medicine, and wood. You’ll never get any of those things from the desert. Thus a desert botanist is a rare scientist indeed and eventually becomes inured to the misery of her subjects. Personally, I don’t have the stomach to deal with such suffering day in and day out.

In the desert, life-threatening stresses aren’t a crisis; they are a normal feature of the life cycle. Extreme stress is part of the very landscape, not something a plant can avoid or ameliorate. Survival depends on the cactus’s ability to tolerate deathly grim dry spells over and over again. If you meet a barrel cactus that’s tall enough to touch your knee, it is likely to be more than twenty-five years old. Cactuses grow slowly in the desert—during the years when they do grow, that is.

A barrel cactus has folds like an accordion, and deep within these folds are the pores that let air in and water evaporate out. When it becomes very dry, a cactus sheds its roots to prevent the parched soil from sucking all the water back out of it. A cactus can live for four days with no roots and still continue to grow. If there is still no rain, the cactus begins to contract, sometimes for months, or until all the folds have closed together. Its spines form a dense and dangerous fur protecting what is now a hard, rootless ball of plant. In this posture, the cactus can sit without growing and await rain for years, while continuously punished by the sun. When it finally rains, the cactus will either return to full functioning within twenty-four hours or show itself to be dead.

***

When we met Ed in front of the building that housed his laboratory, it was mid-morning on a Tuesday. He took us inside and introduced us all around, proudly telling people that he’d known me since I was a new student, that I was now a professor doing great things.

He told about how he had gone on a soils trip with me and I had slept in my car because I didn’t want to lose valuable daylight hours setting up a tent. He told them that I was the hardest-working student he’d ever seen and that he knew I was special from the first time that he met me.

After he finished, I looked up at Ed and said, “Thank you.” 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.

***

Remaining stationary and naked outside in the below-freezing weather for three months is a death sentence for almost every living thing on Earth, except for the many species of trees that have been doing it for a hundred million years or more. Spruce, pine, birch, and the other species that blanket Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia endure up to six months of frozen weather each year.

In order to prepare for their long winter journey, trees undergo a process known as “hardening.” First the permeability of the cell walls increases drastically, allowing pure water to flow out while concentrating the sugars, proteins, and acids left behind. These chemicals act as a potent antifreeze, such that the cell can now dip well below freezing and the fluid inside of it will still persist in a syrupy liquid form. The spaces between the cells are now filled with an ultra-pure distillate of cell water, so pure that there are no stray atoms upon which an ice crystal could nucleate and grow. Ice is a three-dimensional crystal of molecules, and freezing requires a nucleation spot—some chemical aberration upon which the pattern may start to build. Pure water devoid of any such site may be “super-cooled” to forty degrees below zero and still remain an ice-free liquid. It is in this “hardened” state, with some cells packed full of chemicals and others sectioned off for purity, that a tree embarks on its winter journey, standing unmoved through the frost, sleet, and blizzards of the season. These trees do not grow during winter.

The vast majority of northern trees prepare well for their wintertime journey, and death due to frost damage is extremely rare. A chilly autumn brings on the same hardening as a balmy one, because the trees do not take their cue from the changing temperature. It is the gradual shortening of the days, sensed as a steady decrease in light during each twenty-four-hour cycle, that triggers hardening.

AGRONOMISTS AND FORESTERS have charted the growth of hundreds of plant species, starting in 1879 when a German scientist noticed that the increasing weight of a corn plant, when graphed against the days of its development, resulted in a line with a curious lazy-S shape. These scientists had weighed their potted plants daily, and for the entire first month they saw very little growth. Then, during the second month, the plants’ weights shot up sharply; they doubled in size each week until they reached their maxima at three months of age. The scientists were then surprised to see the weights drop off again, and by the time they began to flower and produce seed, the plants weighed only about 80 percent of what they had been at their largest.

There are botany textbooks that contain pages and pages of growth curves, but it is always the lazy-S-shaped ones that confuse my students the most. Why would a plant decrease in mass just when it is nearing its plateau of maximum productivity? I remind them that this shrinking has proved to be a signal of reproduction. As the green plants reach maturity, some of their nutrients are pulled back and repurposed toward flowers and seeds. Production of the new generation comes at a significant cost to the parent, and you can see it in a cornfield, even from a great distance.

For our experiments, we exploit the most fundamental difference between plants and animals—namely, that most plant tissues are redundant and flexible: a root can become a stem if need be, and vice versa. The fragmentation of a single embryo can lead to several copies of that plant, each with an identical blueprint of genes. New propagation techniques allow us to answer questions like “Does a tree remember extreme malnutrition experienced during childhood?” by starving one seedling for years while lavishing nutrients upon its identical twin. Such experiments are the only way to find definitive answers; they are deeply repugnant and obviously unethical with human subjects. Plants, in contrast, are fair game.

***

Our world is falling apart quietly. Human civilization has reduced the plant, a four-hundred-million-year-old life form, into three things: food, medicine, and wood. In our relentless and ever-intensifying obsession with obtaining a higher volume, potency, and variety of these three things, we have devastated plant ecology to an extent that millions of years of natural disaster could not. Roads have grown like a manic fungus, and the endless miles of ditches that bracket these roads serve as hasty graves for perhaps millions of plant species extinguished in the name of progress. Planet Earth is nearly a Dr. Seuss book made real: every year since 1990 we have created more than eight billion new stumps. If we continue to fell healthy trees at this rate, less than six hundred years from now, every tree on the planet will have been reduced to a stump. My job is about making sure there will be some evidence that someone cared about the great tragedy that unfolded during our age.

 

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4 Responses to Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (excerpts)

  1. Beautiful, but there is something mixed up in the sequence of paragraphs

    • energyskeptic says:

      Doh! I have shared my kindle notes without organizing the random selections very well. Since it isn’t about energy per se, I spent less time on it than I should have, sorry about that.

  2. Shawn says:

    Just from reading the extracts above, this is a book by a scientist also gifted as a writer. Goes to the top of my reading list. Thanks for posting!

  3. Ozquoll says:

    She’s got a lovely lucid writing style. And my sides are still hurting after reading the monkey anecdote