Friday, September 1, 2017

Books: "Lab Girl" by Hope Jahren

Everybody in the sciences have apparently read this book long ago; and I know of a professor who made all their students read it. So I felt a bit ashamed not having read it, and had big expectations about it.

Well, it's a great book, and I'm happy that it happened to be about scientists.

It's not a good "book about scientists" though.

I think it's an important distinction (and a horrible wording). My "liking" or "not liking" this book, or "recommending" vs. not recommending it to anybody (say, a student) would really depend on this framing.

I mean, there's genre f iction, and every now and then there's a person in fiction who happens to be a cook, or a policemen. This fact on itself would not make it a book about cooking, or about police, would it? "Indiana Jones" franchise is not really about archaeologists (even though the protagonist happens to claim this profession the calling of medicine), and "The adventures of Sherlock Holmes" is not really a book about the calling of medicine, even though one of the main characters is very much a doctor. And then there are books and movies about medical doctors specifically, that are created as such, to cater to the interest of the public, or maybe to ignite this interest. And you can discuss whether a certain portrayal of a certain profession is truthful, positive, negative, etc., which is one sort of a discussion; or you can discuss the plot, the soap opera, and whether the characters are psychologically plausible, which is a completely different discussion. These are two different dimensions, and a book or a movie can be great in one, and horrible in the other, or vice versa.

So my main trouble with "The Lab Girl" is that, while I totally loved the book, I feel a bit uncomfortable that it was picked by the scientific community, and transplanted from one category to another. From a moving memoir of a person who also happens to be a scientist, it was made into a book about scientists. I totally see the temptation: for one, there are not that many touching, human, vulnerable books that would truthfully describe scientific life. Science is often present in a cartoonish form in scientific fiction, apocalyptic thrillers, or books about political conspiracies, but psychological, literary books about sciences are rather rare. Second, books about women in science, written by women in science, are not that frequent, to put it mildly, and very much in need. Third, the topic of mental health and existential struggle, vulnerability, and success, are all extremely important ones, and ones traditionally shunned and downplayed by the scientific society. This book suddenly filled quite a few niches that were under-occupied, and it resonated with readers.

But at the same time, I feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of normalizing some of the messages of this book: that science requires special sacrifices, that it demands from its followers not just monastic existence (which would be bad enough), but sort of transcendental, esoteric transformation, incompatible with free time, with family, with life, with pretty much everything. Science as a calling, a flame that consumes you, burning from within, the insatiable quest for knowledge, and so on and so forth. A field that you can enter only after being hazed by your elders, because if they don't torture you now, you won't be ready for the tortures of real life (sorry for the spoiler, I hope it's a minor one). I hate it. I mean, for every extreme feeling there exists a person who can live this hype and be happy, or normal, or functioning, so I gladly accept that there are people in the world that feel like that. But I would hate to live this kind of life, and I don't want any student ever think that to be a scientist they need to experience these extremes. Ideally, I want students to be mistaken that science can be a normal routine profession, maybe a bit demanding, maybe a bit under-payed and under-appreciated, all things considering, but still just one profession out of many, that just happens to be also be fun. Because I suspect that one of the ways to make scientific word less torturous is to raise a generation of people who would expect it to be normal, and demand this normality from those around them.

To sum up, I really liked this book, but I regret presenting it to a student last year without finishing it first. I hope we'll have more books written by scientist that would mention science casually, between love affairs and problems with teen-aged kids. Books that would use scientific metaphors, and describe real scientific anecdotes as a backdrop for the main story. So that this lovely book could become one of many, but not necessarily the one.