On Friday April 15th, accomplished scientist Hope Jahren came to Powell’s City of Books in Portland to talk about plants, science communication, and her new memoir, Lab Girl.

Ostensibly, this was an author event, but one unlike any other I’ve attended. Jahren is the recipient of three Fullbright awards, top honors in her field, and made Popular Science’s list of Brilliant 10 Scientists in 2006. Jahren’s new book may be getting rave reviews, but really, this was a scientist event.

Jahren read to the audience a small section of Lab Girl, which illustrated the life and potential of seeds in poetic language, filled with admiration and passion for the miracle of trees.

In writing this book, Jahren did what so many scientists hesitate to do— let feeling seep into the way she talks about science. In doing so, she reaches a much wider audience.

When asked how she learned to write in such a way, Jahren replied that she simply broke a lot of the rules of science writing, such as the anthropomorphizing plants.

“Talking to the public is subversive,” she says honestly, but seeing the humorous side of that statement, adds, “In science, the naughty stuff is so benign.”

It may not be the gold standard of science writing, but people who read the book will walk away knowing more about the work she does and the science it involves. Jahren is a geobiologist, studying the relationship between living and non-living things.

The chance of a single acorn becoming a tree is so small and a tree takes so long to grow. “Most people have a tree that they remember from their childhood.” she said. “Not everyone. Some people are still waiting for their tree.”

Trees are friendless creatures, Jahren points out. If you befriend a tree, help it you change its life, vastly improving the chance of success.

But after studying them for years, Jahren denies having a “spiritual connection” to plants. “I’ve had enough plants seriously screw with my life,” she says.

Being a scientist has taken Jahren on a different path from most people and scientists themselves occupy a unique sphere shared with others who study their particular specialized field. “My world is very small,” said Jahren.

“I’m having the same argument with the same twenty people for the last 20 years. And we’re the only twenty people who care about this,” Jahren said. “Why doesn’t anyone care? No one told them how great it is.”

Jahren steps outside the scientific world to talk to people and sign copies of her new book.
Jahren is an easy person to talk to, chatting with people as she signs copies of her book at the Powell’s event.

This realization was the catalyst for the book. The problem is not that that the general public isn’t interested or can’t comprehend their work, but that no one is communicating with them, Jahren believes.

“We say no on understands and then we shame them,” says Jahren.

Reaching the public means “breaking the rules that we need to break to be understandable… and willing to take the consequences,” says Jahren, placing responsibility on scientists to take action.

“I don’t know what they are yet. I know what the consequences of not breaking the rules are and it’s intolerable.”

Her own effort, Lab Girl, has certainly struck a chord with many people.