As a scientist I am indeed only an ant, insufficient and anonymous, but I am stronger than I look and part of something that is much bigger than I am. Together we are building something that will fill our grandchildren’s grandchildren with awe, and while building we consult daily the crude instructions provided by our grandfathers’ grandfathers. As a tiny, living part of the scientific collective, I’ve sat alone countless nights in the dark, burning my metal candle and watching a foreign world with an aching heart. Like anyone else who harbors precious secrets wrought from years of searching, I have longed for someone to tell.
~ Hope Jahren
Reading Lab Girl by Hope Jahren was eye-opening for me. My father was a scientist and, like many children, I didn’t have much of a grasp on what he did all day. I knew he was researching chicken viruses in a lab at the university. Sometimes he would take my sister and me to work and I noticed all sorts of lab equipment, especially a special light he used to examine chicken embryos in their shells. I knew every couple of years he would be stressing about whether he would get funding for another couple of years. (He always did.) Once I tried to read his PhD thesis, but it was like trying to read a foreign language.
In this book Jahren, who studies plants, introduced me to the concept of curiosity-driven research. The scientist sets up and runs experiments to investigate whatever she happens to be wondering about. Any “real-world” applications of the results are not immediately apparent or sought. Collecting data is pure joy for her. She adds to the volume of scientific knowledge and leaves information for future scientists to make use of in their own research.
Now I get what my father was doing all those years! He may not have made any dazzling discoveries but he was an important ‘part of something that is much bigger than he was.’ Hope Jahren gives a very enlightening look into the everyday world of scientists, in words all of us will understand.