There is a lot to like about this book. It reminded me of The Soul of an Octopus (read my review here) but focusing on plants instead. As a daughter of a doctor who was definitely a lab guy, there is much discussed in this book that is familiar to me. I grew up hearing about my dad’s lab, from the grant writing process to the relationships with his employees, and those delicate frozen samples in the freezers. And as the mother of a girl considering getting her PhD in science (Physics), this book was also interesting, for women in science are still struggling to be taken seriously, and it was interesting to see the trajectory of this author, a successful female scientist, who often works continuous stints of over 48 hours.
This book is as much about her quirky relationship with her co-worker, Bill as it is about herself or the plants she studies. There are some really odd moments between them, but lovely synergy as well. This books reads both as an ode to Bill and to plants, neither of which will ever read it.
Here are some bits I flagged to give you a taste of the variety here ranging from plant science to memoir:
- “There is six hundred times more life on land than there is in the ocean, and this fact comes mostly down to plants. The average ocean plant is one cell that lives for about 20 days. The average land plant is a two-ton tree that lives for more than 100 years. “
- “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, have been wiped from the globe.”
- “People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed– a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.”
- “My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all the things I’m getting done. My uncalled parents, unpaid credit cards, unwashed dishes, and unshaved legs pale in comparison to the noble breakthrough under pursuit. My lab is the place where I can be the child that I still am. It is the place that I play with my best friend. I can laugh in my lab and be ridiculous.”
- “My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. Machines drone a gathering hymn as I enter. … There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t. Elevated to my best self, I strive to do each task correctly. My lab is a place to go on sacred days, as is a church. On holidays, when the rest of the world is closed, my lab is open. My lab is a refuge and an asylum. … And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.”
- “A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed… A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the three hundred year old oak tree that towers over it… Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”
- “In the United States alone, the total length of the wooden planks used during the last twenty years was more than enough to use as a foot bridge from the planet Earth to the planet Mars.”
If you are interested in science, you will be glad to have read this book. In general, Lab Girl is very well done. However, a few chapters in it lagged for me, especially the whole pharmacy bit while she was in college, which I didn’t find as compelling as the rest. For this minor reason, I’m only giving the book 4 stars. It is worth a read, and then go plant a tree.
I read it a couple of years ago and enjoyed it as well. I agree very much with your review and really appreciate revisiting those quotes you included! Thanks.