It seemed scandalous that, until last year’s award of the Royal Society Science Book Prize to Gaia Vince, the prize (including previous incarnations) had never been won by a sole female author. But there is a host of science books written by women that should be in the running for this year’s award, and Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is surely among them. A biographical account of life as a botanically-inclined geo-biologist, it reads more like a novel than a traditional science book.
Jahren, a Minnesotan of Scandinavian heritage currently at the University of Hawaii, does the reader the favour of dispensing with hand-holding through the technical details for the sake of pace and flair. You don’t need to know what an “oxygen isotope signature” is to get a sense of what research life is like: the nights in the lab, the joys of discovery, the frustration and tedium of grant proposals. There is also childbirth, being bipolar and crashing cars—because scientists do that too. Jahren offers up the plant science in short, lyrical interludes, designed as much to entrance as to educate her readers. Underpinning these sections is a lament for the destruction of plant ecosystems on all scales from the local to the global: “Every single year, at least one tree is cut down in your name.” This kind of personal, bittersweet, bruised memoir is emerging as a new way of writing about science—one that will hopefully banish for good the notion that it is just for the boys.