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Lab girl
2017
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3 A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance--to take its one and only chance to grow. 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. Neither the seed nor the old oak is growing; they are both just waiting. Their waiting differs, however, in that the seed is waiting to flourish while the tree is only waiting to die. 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. More than half of these seeds will die before they feel the trigger that they are waiting for, and during awful years every single one of them will die. All this death hardly matters, because the single birch tree towering over you produces at least a quarter of a million new seeds every single year. 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. A coconut is a seed that's as big as your head. It can float from the coast of Africa across the entire Atlantic Ocean and then take root and grow on a Caribbean island. In contrast, orchid seeds are tiny: one million of them put together add up to the weight of a single paper clip. Big or small, most of every seed is actually just food to sustain a waiting embryo. The embryo is a collection of only a few hundred cells, but it is a working blueprint for a real plant with root and shoot already formed. When the embryo within a seed starts to grow, it basically just stretches out of its doubled-over waiting posture, elongating into official ownership of the form that it assumed years ago. The hard coat that surrounds a peach pit, a sesame or mustard seed, or a walnut's shell mostly exists to prevent this expansion. In the laboratory, we simply scratch the hard coat and add a little water and it's enough to make almost any seed grow. I must have cracked thousands of seeds over the years, and yet the next day's green never fails to amaze me. Something so hard can be so easy if you just have a little help. In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you're supposed to be. After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed ( Nelumbo nucifera ) and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant's yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory. I wonder where it is right now. 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. Excerpted from Lab Girl by Hope Jahren All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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  New York Times Review

LARGE NUMBERS AMAZE; numbers of large numbers amaze even more. Cognitive neuroscience can explain why (numbers of a certain opulence can be grasped only conceptually, and thus stupefy) but it takes a passionate geobiologist with the soul of a poet to make us really swoon in the face of computational amplitude. Science is in the end a love affair with numbers, and when it comes to botany, the "numbers are staggering," Hope Jahren writes in her spirited account of how she became an eminent research scientist. "Lab Girl" lets loose with a salvo of stunning numbers in its first paragraph: The mass ratio of plants to animals on land is a thousand to one, and the average plant on land is a two-ton tree that lives for more than a century. There are more than 200 trees to each human in the United States - some 80 billion trees in national parks alone. "Since I've discovered these numbers," Jahren writes, "I can see little else." We can see why. An aim of hers is to make the reader appreciate the fascinations of studying flora, to infect us with the same enthusiasm that has driven her ever since she was a child hanging around in her professor father's lab, falling hard for the sensuous allures of the slide rule. Early on she discovers one generous mystery of scientific inquiry - in the course of making it, it makes you: "A true scientist doesn't perform prescribed experiments, she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge." Jahren's literary bent renders dense material digestible, and lyrical, in fables that parallel personal history. "A tree's wood is also its memoir," and the first leaf that unfurls from a seed "is a new idea," like those a scientist investigates to establish a career. Trees need to meet their "annual budgets" for growth just as an academic must secure funding, over and over. And willows, "the Rapunzel of the plant world," continually shed bits that take root downstream in genetic replicas - inseparable, like Jahren and her lab partner Bill, a character every bit as extraordinary as any of the wild organisms she describes. The sardonic Bill, of Armenian extraction, enters her life when she's a graduate student at Berkeley and proceeds to enliven both it and her narrative for the remainder. When writing about a symbiotic fungus that permits a tree to grow where it otherwise might fail or the constancy of the light cycle that sets off protective hardening against the winter freeze, she is invoking their friendship. Both scientists are natural loners, but together are lonely no more. They build labs at three universities; on occasion Bill takes up residence in them, when he's not living in a van, that is. He is funny, hard-bitten, loyal and achingly touching: After Jahren marries and has a son, she hopes Bill too will find love. He dismisses the notion by observing that since Armenians often live to 100, at not yet 50 he's too young to date. If her use of allegory to make science approachable verges on pat, Jahren can be forgiven, for it allows her to deliver a gratifying and often moving chronicle of the scientist's life. She also earns her license to issue warnings we would do well to heed. Jahren is determined we stop taking trees for granted. They are a miracle 300 million years in the making. That they are still around is testimony to their ingenious powers of survival. Or perhaps to our inability - yet - to destroy every last one, though not for lack of trying: We are on track to rid the planet of trees within 600 years. So plant one tree this year, Jahren implores. "Becoming a tree is a long journey," she writes, a sometimes perilous one, as a great majority - 95 percent - will not live past their second year. So too is the road to becoming a scientist, and especially a female one; sexism in science is a major theme of the book. Trees nourish life in uncountable, always beautiful, ways, and to plant one is to plant hope. MELISSA HOLBROOK PIERSON is the author of five books, most recently "The Secret History of Kindness."

  Publishers Weekly Review

Jahren, a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, recounts her unfolding journey to discover "what it's like to be a plant" in this darkly humorous, emotionally raw, and exquisitely crafted memoir. In clever prose, Jahren distills what it means to be one of those researchers who "love their calling to excess." She describes the joy of working alone at night, the "multidimensional glory" of a manic episode, scavenging jury-rigged equipment from a retiring colleague, or spontaneously road-tripping with students to a roadside monkey preserve. She likens elements of her scientific career to a plant world driven by need and instinct, comparing the academic grant cycle to the resource management of a deciduous tree and the experience of setting up her first-desperately underfunded-basement lab to ambitious vines that grow quickly wherever they can. But the most extraordinary and delightful element of her narrative is her partnership with Bill, a taciturn student who becomes both her lab partner and her sarcastic, caring best friend. It's a rare portrait of a deep relationship in which the mutual esteem of the participants is unmarred by sexual tension. For Jahren, a life in science yields the gratification of asking, knowing, and telling; for the reader, the joy is in hearing about the process as much as the results. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Summary
National Bestseller<br> <br> Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography<br> <br> A New York Times Notable Book<br> <br> Winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru Science Books & Film Prize for Excellence in Science Books <br> <br> Finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award <br> <br> One of the Best Books of the Year: The Washington Post , TIME.com, NPR, Slate , Entertainment Weekly , Newsday , Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews<br> <br> Geobiologist Hope Jahren has spent her life studying trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Lab Girl is her revelatory treatise on plant life--but it is also a celebration of the lifelong curiosity, humility, and passion that drive every scientist. In these pages, Hope takes us back to her Minnesota childhood, where she spent hours in unfettered play in her father's college laboratory. She tells us how she found a sanctuary in science, learning to perform lab work "with both the heart and the hands." She introduces us to Bill, her brilliant, eccentric lab manager. And she extends the mantle of scientist to each one of her readers, inviting us to join her in observing and protecting our environment. Warm, luminous, compulsively readable, Lab Girl vividly demonstrates the mountains that we can move when love and work come together. <br> <br>
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