Hope Jahren’s Love Letter to Life and Science

Hope Jahren’s Love Letter to Life and Science

Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, is beautiful and poetic love letter to science, to the world of trees and plants. When a scientist also has the gift of language, something like a miracle gets produced. Jahren seems to weave words so naturally, putting together words that mere mortals don’t usually put together, unexpectedly, surprisingly, and wonderfully.

I have recommended this book many times, and will continue to do so in the future. I guarantee that you will never look at a tree the same way again.

If you are not yet convinced, here is a trailer for the book with excerpts read by the author herself.

To give you a taste of Jahren’s tapestry of words, here are some of my favorite quotes from Lab Girl.

In this quote, Jahren reminisces the garden she built with her mother in her childhood. But it’s not a typical description of a garden.

My strongest memory of our garden is not how it smelled, or even looked, but how it sounded. It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day.

Only someone in love with plants can notice this amazing fact and put it down in those words.

 

 

Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. – Hope Jahren

In the book, the narrative of Jahren’s life is interspersed with poetic reflection on the life of a tree, perhaps as a metaphor, a lesson, or just for fun (or all of the above). She has a way of pulling you into the mystery hidden in the silent lives of trees, and also perhaps the silent life of a researcher. Here is the first one on a tree’s initial stage of life: a seed. As if describing a baby, Jahren infuses life to this Earth’s tiny detail that we often overlook.

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.

When the seed decides to begin its incarnation as a tree,

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.

She does this again and again. In describing leaves, “The first real leaf is a new idea.” Or the wood,

A tree’s wood is also its memoir: we can count the rings to learn the tree’s age, for every season of growth requires a new sheath from the cambium. There’s a lot of additional information written into tree rings, but it is coded within a language that scientists don’t speak fluently—yet. An unusually thick ring could signify a good year, with lots of growth, or it could just be the product of adolescence, a random spurt of growth hormones cued by an influx of unfamiliar pollen from a distant source.

 

Here’s a new way to look at the furniture in your house.

Every piece of wood in your house—from the windowsills to the furniture to the rafters—was once part of a living being, thriving in the open and pulsing with sap. If you look at these wooden objects across the grain, you might be able to trace out the boundaries of a couple of rings. The delicate shape of those lines tells you the story of a couple of years. If you know how to listen, each ring describes how the rain fell and the wind blew and the sun appeared every day at dawn.

On science and scientific discovery,

A true scientist doesn’t perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge.

One of the most exquisite passages in the book is when she describes her first discovery as a graduate student (see also The Joy of Discovery). Science is usually covered in the media or movies as something sexy and high-tech. But the reality is most of science is done in humble labs with exposed pipes, hidden in the basement of a building, and during the hours most people are asleep. In this instance, the discovery comes during a certain all-nighter.

I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was—in addition to being small and insufficient—special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially, because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation, because of what I had seen and then understood.

 

…But on that night, I wiped my face with my hands, embarrassed to be weeping over something that most people would see as either trivial or profoundly dull. I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn… Nothing could alter the overwhelming sweetness of briefly holding a small secret that the universe had earmarked just for me. I knew instinctively that if I was worthy of a small secret, I might someday be worthy of a big one.

 

Finally, this one here is now among my top favorite quotes of all time.

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.

These quotes make me smile. Pick up Jahren’s beautiful book and join in the discovery.

 

Abraham Heschel: Two Ways of Seeing the World

Abraham Heschel: Two Ways of Seeing the World

Feature image: Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park. Credit: Johnny Loi Photography.

 

The Watchman. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Temple of Sinawava. These are not religious allusions, but names of the rock formations in Zion National Park, Utah. Soaring to majestic heights, it is not surprising that they inspired spiritual experiences in those who named them.

 

From the ground to thousands feet above sea level, these rocks’ vertical dimension tells a mysterious story of time and nature. Carved to each groove is the invisible movement of waters over this Earth’s lifetime. History collapsed into formations. Rocks stand as though holding secrets, as natural monuments, as silent witnesses to the forces of nature that humans will never uncover.

 

Face to face with this hushed grandness, one cannot help but sense the drama hidden in the place. There are things bigger than me and I am overwhelmed.

 

I found myself in this tension at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks recently. I found that I could see these mysteries in two ways.

 

One was the questioning way. What happened here? How did the rocks get shaped this way? What was it about this area that made this structure possible? Is there consensus whether it was something catastrophic or gradual? Could geologists distinguish the footprints of a catastrophe vs. gradual canyon creation by water year by year?

 

The monkey mind could go on and on.

 

But then I found that there was another way of looking at the scene. Asking what happened was futile, since no one knew what exactly happened, how precisely the waters flowed to create the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. No one was there. With that, I silenced my monkey brain.

 

Then it happened. Silence, awe, wonder, reverence.

 

It was a way of looking at things for what they were, just as they were, acknowledging the mystery and admiring it in peace.

 

I was reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words on the two ways of seeing the world in his beautiful book, Man Is Not Alone:

Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties-with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.

 

In one, the world is subject to us. In the other, we are subject to the world. One is scrutiny; the other is surrender, a succumbing to something other than us.

 

Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge… to doubt is to question that which we have accepted as possibly true a moment ago… But if we must know in order to question, if we must entertain a belief in order to cast doubt upon it, then doubt cannot be the beginning of knowledge.

 

Wonder is not just about receiving information; it is the amazement at being able to see at all:

Wonder goes beyond knowledge… We are amazed at seeing anything at all; amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all.

 

Even before we conceptualize what we perceive, we are amazed beyond words, beyond doubts.

 

And here is the crux of the two modes of seeing:

When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question.

 

 

Couple this with Before Learning and After Learning, applying the two modes of seeing the world in the process of learning. Also read Wonder and Fear: Thinking Two Thoughts at Once on the experience of encountering nature.

 

Why You Don’t Have to Know Everything

Why You Don’t Have to Know Everything

“Why You Don’t Have to Know Everything” is a revision of an older essay, “The Thrill of Not Knowing.”

 

You’re at the beginning of a rollercoaster ride, going uphill, toward the highest point of the track. Higher and higher, slowly, building anticipation. A couple of things are happening. Your palms start sweating, the heart beats faster, and your mind debates itself, “Why in the world did I do this? Get me out of here! But I can’t get off..” or “Ok, it’s gonna happen soon, take a deep breath, be ready…” Finally, you reach the apex, where your stress (or thrill) also peaks. As the rollercoaster slowly turns downward, you see how high you are for a split second, how steep the downhill slope is, and you gulp because there’s no turning back.

 

The Unknown, whatever it is that we can’t know, plan or anticipate, can incite intense reactions to the limited, non-omniscient human mind. It can make you fearful and anxious, overwhelmingly so in some cases. It can cause nervous breakdown and real physical ailments if not handled properly, along with discontentment and anger. What will my life be? What am I supposed to do, who am I supposed to be in this life? How will this job, this relationship, this new house turn out? What is my calling in life? How does a fulfilled life look like? Am I ever going to be successful?

 

At one point or another, we feel this restlessness in our soul. Something like a signal that there are things we have yet to do, places we have yet to see, life we have yet to experience.

 

But just like a rollercoaster ride, the fear of the Unknown does not make up the entire experience. There is another aspect of the story that, in actuality, is the thing that makes people want to go on rollercoaster rides in the first place – thrill. For someone who happens to love rollercoasters, the thrill of the experience overtakes the fear and anxiety during that uphill part.

 

Not knowing about something, about life, can be a thrilling experience. I’m not talking about being blissfully ignorant. Quite the opposite. I’m talking about being curious and enjoying the process of unveiling whatever it is that lies between me and that thing beyond the veil. Not knowing is what makes learning such an enjoyable process, a process by which one goes from not knowing to knowing. And this is fun. It is so much fun that it’s hard to imagine knowing everything. A life without mystery, how dull would that be?

 

Often we think that once we know, if only we know this one thing, we would finally have peace. We’ll finally be at a state of rest, not anxious or worried about what will happen. But the truth is that we’ll only find another thing to fret about. We would find out that knowing that one thing is not enough, and anxiety takes over again.

 

Why live this way? Why not enjoy the process and let go of the micro plans?

 

 

In the realm of Christianity, a special case of this phenomenon is something like this: What is God’s will for my life? What is my purpose on earth? Sometimes the questions come with anger and discontentment, sometimes with anxiety and restlessness, or sometimes with a certain sobriety, realizing the import of the answer to those questions.

 

The question that I would ask, though, is What would you do with the answer? What kind of answer are you looking for? Are you expecting black ink on white paper stating, This is what you will do? Would you rather know the fact, or would you rather discover it?

 

I’m inclined to choose discovery over being given a statement of fact. I’d rather discover what I will be in 10 years, rather than being told by a hypothetical time traveler from the future that in 10 years, I’ll be doing this and that. But part of choosing discovery–not that it’s much of a choice–is the not knowing part. You only find out a little bit at a time, and I’d suggest that this is the more preferable and exciting way.

 

My favorite book Education has this quote:

 

When Adam came from the Creator’s hand, he bore, in his physical, mental, and spiritual nature, a likeness to his Maker. “God created man in His own image” and it was His purpose that the longer man lived the more fully he should reveal this image—the more fully reflect the glory of the Creator. All his faculties were capable of development; their capacity and vigor were continually to increase. Vast was the scope offered for their exercise, glorious the field opened to their research. The mysteries of the visible universe—the “wondrous works of Him which is perfect in knowledge”—invited man’s study.

 

The radical idea being proposed here is that in a state of perfection–a world without sin and suffering–Adam was still meant to grow and discover. In a way, he too was meant to discover God’s will for his life and existence. The more he were to live, the more he would find out the capacity embedded in his being as well as the mysteries of the world he was placed in.

 

In other words, life has always been mysterious, inwardly and outwardly, from way back when, to now, to eternity. Discovery is a life essential, and it would be wise to know how to live peacefully with it.

 

Another quote in the book says:

 

Heaven is a school; its field of study, the universe; its teacher, the Infinite One. A branch of this school was established in Eden; and, the plan of redemption accomplished, education will again be taken up in the Eden school. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.”

 

Because we do not know all things, we have the capacity to be marveled and blown away. Not knowing is really our capacity to be surprised. And that thrill is a gift of life.

 

When we don’t know certain details of our life’s purpose, when we don’t understand why we’re going through certain things, we don’t have to be upset or anxious. At least, don’t cling to it. Rather, have trust. Trust in the process, trust in God and His character. Let go of the micro plans and let yourself be swayed and moved a little by life, by the occasions that need your help, and by other things outside of your plans.

 

Love the journey. Love the discovery. And enjoy the thrill of not knowing everything.

 

 

Sabbath: The Pause in the Rhythm of Creation

Sabbath: The Pause in the Rhythm of Creation

All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full, says the King in Ecclesiastes. To the place from which the rivers come, there they return again. Vanity, he exclaims, because everything is temporary. I wonder if this was a lamentation or a poetic expression of his observations. In the eyes of an incurable optimist, however, as I am, the metaphor takes on a different light.

 

Isn’t it a wonder that the sea is never full? All the waters lead to the sea and yet they come back to us. They are transported to where they started, and round and round they go. As they ride in their atmospheric carousel, along the way, they bless all kinds of living things. The soil is dewed and refreshed, the trees drink freely, and the thirsts of creatures and mankind are quenched. Nutrients get transported from one place to another and dirt gets washed away. I am sure glad that the waters move and travel, even though they return to the same place over and over again.

 

Imagine riding a water molecule, witnessing the trajectory of its life cycle on this planet. The places it visits, the people it sees, the calamities it may take part in—these would make quite a story. When it ends up in the sea, the sun may kiss it and lift it up to the sky. It may get frozen there to return to earth or it may retire in the Arctic.

 

In an age of declining fresh water resources, I treasure this water cycle from land, sky, and sea as the largest desalination process our world has. There’s much good and meaning in this blessed movement.

 

The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north. The wind whirls about continually, and comes again on its circuit. The sun may be doing the same thing every day, but boy, what would we do if it decided to not arise. How would we miss its warmth and light, and its life-giving power. The wind that goes from north to south carries pollens for the trees, moving animals and humans here and there—a life in transit.

 

Transience, it seems, is the essence of life. Life moves, and I think it is good that it does so.

 

The Rhythm of Nature

 

Nature hums in a rhythmic fashion, and we, humans, are still part of this dance no matter how much we exert our controlling powers. There’s a rhythm that we cannot escape—the rain that falls on us, the flight-delaying weather disruptions, the seasons that happen to us—we are subject to these things. One could take it as a depressive state, being trapped by nature, or one could instead surrender to the rhythm, understanding that it is much better to enjoy it rather than fight against it.

 

Part of this rhythm, the cycle of life, is rest, a period of dormancy, recuperation, and restoration. The land needs it to continue producing food, animals need it to survive through winter, and mankind needs sleep, among many other examples.

 

Wayne Muller writes in his book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives,

 

“We are strong and capable people, we can work without stopping, faster and faster, electric lights making artificial day so the whole machine can labor without ceasing. But remember: No living thing lives like this. There are greater rhythms that govern how life grows: circadian rhythms, seasons and hormonal cycles and sunsets and moonrises and great movements of seas and stars. We are part of the creation story, subject to all its laws and rhythms.”

 

“When we rest, we can relish the seasons of a moment, a day, a conversation… To surrender to the rhythms of seasons and flowerings and dormancies is to savor the secret of life itself.”

 

This dance of coming close and withdrawing, of giving and receiving, is the essence and joy of living. It is a principle of life, as expressed in The Desire of Ages by Ellen White:

 

“There is nothing, save the selfish heart of man, that lives unto itself. No bird that cleaves the air, no animal that moves upon the ground, but ministers to some other life. There is no leaf of the forest, or lowly blade of grass, but has its ministry. Every tree and shrub and leaf pours forth that element of life without which neither man nor animal could live; and man and animal, in turn, minister to the life of tree and shrub and leaf. The flowers breathe fragrance and unfold their beauty in blessing to the world. The sun sheds its light to gladden a thousand worlds. The ocean, itself the source of all our springs and fountains, receives the streams from every land, but takes to give. The mists ascending from its bosom fall in showers to water the earth, that it may bring forth and bud.”

 

White continues to liken this principle with the character of the Godhead in the Bible:

“In these words is set forth the great principle which is the law of life for the universe. All things Christ received from God, but He took to give. So in the heavenly courts, in His ministry for all created beings: through the beloved Son, the Father’s life flows out to all; through the Son it returns, in praise and joyous service, a tide of love, to the great Source of all. And thus through Christ the circuit of beneficence is complete, representing the character of the great Giver, the law of life.”

Sabbath: A Time to Receive

 

The Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, is synonymous with rest. As such, its inclusion in human life is incredibly appropriate. It is the dormancy to activity, the withdrawing to assertion, the restoration to production.

 

Going back to Muller,

 

“Many scientists believe we are ‘hard-wired’ like this, to live in rhythmic awareness, to be in and then step out, to be engrossed and then detached, to work and then to rest. It follows then that the commandment to remember the Sabbath is not a burdensome requirement for some law-giving deity—“You ought, you’d better, you must”—but rather a remembrance of a law that is firmly embedded in the fabric of nature. It is a reminder of how things really are, the rhythmic dance to which we unavoidably belong.”

 

To stop on the Sabbath when the sun sets on Friday evening requires a surrender, a certain trust, that things won’t fall apart when we’re not attending to them. This stopping can generate anxiety, because we may have been convinced of our importance and responsibility for six days. What if I don’t check my email? What if something goes wrong? We may think we’re indispensable.

 

Yet honoring the Sabbath is an art of quieting ourselves from these anxieties, a reminder that the world will not likely end because we stop for a day.

 

“We stop because there are forces larger than we that take care of the universe, and while our efforts are important, necessary, and useful, they are not (nor are we) indispensable. The galaxy will somehow manage without us… enjoy our relative unimportance, our humble place at the table in a very large world. The deep wisdom embedded in creation will take care of things for a while.”

 

The Earth has been here before us and will be here after us. That’s something we can take comfort in.

 

A Kind of Nostalgia

 

The Sabbath is meant to bring a kind of nostalgia—hence the words, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”—of another world in another time. The book of Genesis narrates that mankind was created last, when the rest of creation was finished. Adam and Eve came when the world was already done, to a finished world, and their first day was to be the Sabbath. In it, there was enjoyment, trust, and surrender, because God had done the creative work, and nothing unfinished depended on them.

 

The Sabbath today carries this memory from Eden. A glimpse of paradise, I’m convinced, because we too can trust the same power that created and sustained the universe to take care of everything for one day. We too can rest, and be carried away in this rhythm of creation.

 

The Joy of Discovery

The Joy of Discovery

This is an excerpt from Hope Jahren’s beautiful book, Lab Girl, on the joy of discovery, its mysterious and magical wonder of both the smallness and the magnitude of a single scientific finding. Any PhD student, current or otherwise, can appreciate this experience.

 

When a lab experiment just won’t work, moving heaven and earth often won’t make it work–and, similarly there are some experiments that you just can’t screw up even if you try. The readout from the x-ray displayed one clear, unequivocal peak at exactly the same angle of diffraction each time I replicated the measurement.

 

 

The long, low, broad swoop of ink was totally unlike the stiff, jerky spikes that my advisor and I thought we might see, and it clearly indicated that my mineral was an opal. I stood and stared at the readout, knowing that there was no way I had–or anybody could have–possibly misinterpreted the result. It was opal and this was something I knew, something I could draw a circle around and testify to as being true. While looking at the graph, I thought about how I now knew something for certain that only an hour ago had been an absolute unknown, and I slowly began to appreciate how my life had just changed.

 

 

I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was–in addition to being small and insufficient–special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially, because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation, because of what I had seen and then understood.

 

 

…I stood and looked out the window, waiting for the sun to come up, and eventually a few tears ran down my face. I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother–or because I felt like nobody’s daughter–or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout, which I could forever point to as my opal.

 

 

I had worked and waited for this day. In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.

 

 

…I wiped my face with my hands, embarrassed to be weeping over something that most people would see as either trivial or profoundly dull. I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn.

 

 

…Nothing could alter the overwhelming sweetness of briefly holding a small secret that the universe had earmarked just for me.

 

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