Undone Book Club Review: Lab Girl, Hope Jahren

In year seven the big science project was ‘Science Badge’. To earn our badge we had to choose from a wide range of scientific subjects and complete activities on that subject. The activities ranged from mediocre (meteorology – record the weather for a week) to complex (energy – build a working candle operated steam turbine). I remember others in the class only earned one badge – they all chose zoology – but I geeked out and did three. Chemistry, ornithology and botany. And hence botany became my obsession.

“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.” Hope Jahren’s musings in Lab Girl on the nature of seeds, roots, and leaves reminded me of the hours I spent counting tiny seeds on the silverside of ferns, placing white roses in dyed water and watching them change colour, and the carefully drawn cross-sections of flowers that looked uncannily like vaginas (of course my 11-year-old eyes were too innocent to notice this).

From willows to weeds, and fungus to ferns, this is a book about plants. Hope’s lab is her church, the natural world is her god, and plants are her bible.

“My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. The machines drone a gathering rhythm 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.”

But these succinct chapters about the secret lives of plants are scattered among long autobiographical chapters: Lab Girl is not only a book about science, it is a book about mental illness, motherhood, marriage, and ultimately about friendship.

In a world drowning in tinder swipes and ‘gram perfect weddings, true platonic friendship is rare. The book follows Hope and her best friend Bill as they travel the globe in the name of plants and scientific discovery. Unwaveringly loyal to one another, Hope and Bill are the Patti and Robert of the science world.

“People are like plants: they grow toward the light.”

I don’t know what happened to the 11 year old infatuated by botany, but I suspect the horrible science teacher I had the following year had something to do with her disappearance. But somehow my obsession with science turned into an obsession with books, and Lab Girl ties the two.

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Laura Oosterbeek

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