Finding a Sanctuary in Science
Geobiologist Hope Jahren’s memoir, “Lab Girl,” is meant not only to describe her connection to science, but to make science relatable to the public.
Much of the language used to teach scientific principles or describe exciting scientific discoveries is anything but exciting. Scientific language, as a rule, is precise, but it can also be boring, elitist, and all but impenetrable to the average listener or reader.
Geobiologist Hope Jahren wants to change all that.
“I have a lot of ideas about how that [language] sanitizing process is meant to protect science, to protect its elite status as not something everyone can do,” Jahren says. “And how better to do that than to talk about it in a way that not everybody can understand? And so with this book I’ve decided to break all of those rules.”
Jahren’s new book is a memoir called Lab Girl: The Pursuit of Sanctuary and Science, Inside the Lab, and it’s meant to not only describe her connection to science, but also make science relatable to those less familiar with the lab.
“My earliest memories are being in the lab,” Jahren says, “and the way the cement felt and the way it smelled, and the way the countertops looked and it just being this wonderful, warm, happy place where it was just full of toys. But they weren’t really toys, they were serious, and I could do anything I wanted with them because my father’s endlessly patient in terms of letting us, you know, take it all out and do whatever we wanted…
“He treated us like we were important, you know, we were his colleagues and we were helping him do this stuff and it was something that I couldn’t imagine not having in my life…That always stayed with me, and I think that’s what’s held me in science all these years—not the formal education I received, but going back to those very early days.”
Jahren describes her childhood growing up, spending time in the lab with her father, who taught science at a community college for 45 years. She also tries to make the profession and her passion for it relatable.
“I go halfway around the world to see a place where a tree used to be,” Jahren says. “It’s so hard to put into words that draw that comes from deep deep inside. But I believe that a lot of scientists have that toward their study organism or toward their study model or toward their system or machine or whatever it is that we’re drawn to these things in a way that makes us gladly pay the price of long hours and isolation and all these kinds of things. And that’s the story I really wanted to tell.”
Jahren made a choice to describe her work in a less precise way in order for it to be more relatable.
In describing her job as a geobiologist she says, “It means that I’m interested in life on land. I’m interested in how the bare bones of the planet, things that aren’t alive, are transformed into things that are alive.”
Not everyone has been pleased with Jahren’s choice to simplify scientific language. The author says she’s received a lot of criticism for her imprecise descriptions.
“Responses from scientists…you’d think I was inciting people to violence by writing that,” Jahren says, “I thought about every sentence in this book. And I was absolutely pig-headed about keeping terminology out of it to the biggest extent possible. I gave myself a structure, and I said, ‘I’m not going to violate that structure by introducing scientific terms.’ And so if I sacrificed some of the precision…then that’s the price we’re going to pay to talk to a new group of people.”
Elizabeth Shockman is a freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities. Previously she worked as a PRI staff member and freelancer, reporting primarily from Moscow and around Russia.