In Lab Girl, Jahren combats a traditional misconception about her field of study—that scientific thought is somehow separate from and in opposition to the study of literature. For her, science and literature are deeply connected, and scientists are every bit as enthralled by the written word as their counterparts in the humanities.
As an avid reader, Jahren mentions the influence that books have had on her daily life, and the connections she made between what she was reading and the scientific world around her. Jahren’s reading of David Copperfield was deeply influenced by her experience working in a hospital—or perhaps, to the contrary, her work in the hospital was influenced by her reading of the novel. It was only after her first shift at the hospital that Jahren decided on the topic for her English literature term paper: “The Use and Meaning of ‘Heart’ Within David Copperfield.” Her first pass through the novel revealed hundreds of uses of the word, and Jahren was overwhelmed by the project until she connected the heart metaphors to the things she saw in the hospital. She would memorize passages during the day, and as she made her way around the hospital floors at night, the words would come alive for her, giving the novel a deeper and more complex meaning. This allowed her to “go home and write pages and pages” after her shifts, as her subconscious had made the necessary literary connections while she worked. As a graduate student, Jahren was no longer taking literature courses, but continued to explore literature—and the profound analytical questions that it inspires—on her own. On her first field trip to central California as a graduate assistant, Jahren was reading a biography of Jean Genet, who had fascinated her for years. She notes that she felt Genet was an “organic writer,” using a term that would not be out of place in a scientific work. Jahren was engaged in the book beyond the level of leisure reading, as well. She recalls being “obsessed with trying to figure out how Genet’s early life had destined him for success,” using literature to search for answers with the same tenacity she displays in her science research.
Jahren’s mother would include the young girl in her adult studies in English literature, which helped Jahren to see the inherent value of literature as equal and even complementary to the study of science. Young Jahren helped her mother use a Middle English dictionary, sifted through symbols in Pilgrim’s Progress, and was exposed to the poetry of Carl Sandberg and the essays of Susan Sontag. While Jahren would not describe them as having a strong mother-daughter bond—she recalls that their relationship “felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right”—her mother taught her to nourish her body and mind through the work of gardening and reading. Most importantly, however, Jahren’s mother taught her that “reading is a kind of work, and that every paragraph merits exertion.” This forms the foundation of Jahren’s thirst for knowledge of all kinds. For her, the mysteries of science and literature are not in conflict, as they are for some scientists; they are simply two sides of the same coin.
Jahren’s love of literature even boils down to the words she uses in her scientific research, as she notes that no one “in the world agonizes over words the way a scientist does.” Words are more than just a vehicle for disseminating information—they convey the exactness of scientific knowledge, and emphasize the smooth and logical transition from hypothesis to conclusion. As a scientist who is dependent on grants to fund her research, Jahren makes it clear that words are the tools of her trade just as much as the beakers and mass spectrometers in her laboratory. She describes the process of funding a new project, portraying herself as a kind of salesperson for the grant world: “I cook up a pipe dream, embellish it until it is borderline impossible, pitch and sell the idea” with a well-written grant application. Once they have completed the work, Jahren returns to the written word to promote their success in their final report. In contrast, Lab Girl does away with the manipulations required of Jahren’s science publications, allowing Jahren to present herself, and the science research she conducts, more honestly. She points to one of her personal reasons for writing this memoir when discussing the “streamlined beauty” of her scientific publications, which she describes as a mannequin, designed to “showcase the glory of a dress that would be much less perfect on any real person.” Lab Girl is Jahren’s way of communicating the imperfections and frustrations inherent in science research, and to give readers a more realistic view of her world. When reflecting on her favorite tree from childhood, which her parents had to chop down many years after she left home, Jahren notes that she learned that “carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.” As Jahren examines the clues that plants have left behind from millions of years ago, she reflects on the importance of storytelling, whether that be through fossils, chemical traces, or the written word.
While Jahren’s love of science is apparent from the first page of Lab Girl, her love of literature is fundamental to the existence of the book in the first place. And more importantly, Jahren’s ability to interweave science and literature in such an organic way helps to break down the divisions between those areas of study, which aren’t so different after all.
Science vs. Literature ThemeTracker
Science vs. Literature Quotes in Lab Girl
Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more […].
“Hey, you guys! Want a cold one?”
“No, I don’t. That stuff you are drinking tastes like piss.”
“Well, I don’t really like beer, but that stuff does seem pretty awful.”
“Jean Genet wouldn’t have even stolen that shit.”
While this great cosmic fire hose bathes you in epiphanies, you are overtaken by your urgent need to document them and thus are an inspired manual for all perfect tomorrows. Unfortunately, this is when reality closes ranks and conspires to thwart you in earnest. Your hands shake such that you can’t hold a pen. You pull out a tape recorder and push “record” and fill cassette after cassette.