Hope Jahren on How It Actually Seems Possible to Have Empathy for Plants

Hope Jahren
I’m Alan Alda and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Hope: The reality is that plants do all the same things we do. You know, they grow, they get sick, they heal from sickness, they die, they have offspring, they reproduce. And, they store against future bad times. They do all the things we do. They just do them very differently than we do. We’re kind of stuck in a different world from them. And so, a big part of studying plants well is spending a lot of time imagining.
That’s Hope Jahren, and boy, does she imagine well, taking the readers of her amazing book Lab Girl so deep into the lives of plants that they come alive in our imaginations. This while weaving her own personal story of a life in science that allows us to share her experience of a life in science. She’s a professor now at the University of Oslo, so I was especially delighted that during a trip to New York she had time before catching a Yankees game to join me in our Manhattan studio.

Alan: 00:00:00 Hope, this is such a treat for me to talk to you, because I think you’re such an extraordinary writer. You light up the brain with the way you write, the way you put words together. You slip in concepts and words that tickle the brain. I just love it.
Hope: 00:00:18 It’s fun to do. It’s a real joy to write and to try and to imagine, you know, where and how somebody’s eyes might light up when they read this part, and will this sentence work? And, you know, part of it is I’ve taught this material for so many years, that I’ve had those eyes in the classroom and I’ve been able to this little-
Alan: 00:00:37 Oh that’s interesting. So, you have had the experience of in a way saying these things to real people.
Hope: 00:00:45 A live studio audience. You know what that is.
Alan: 00:00:47 And when-
Alan: 00:00:47 Yeah, right. Exactly. And then when you write it, you’re having the experience of knowing what’s gonna work with the reader. You know, it’s funny, when I write for the stage, because I’ve been on the stage as a performer so many times, I can actually, if it’s a funny moment, I either hear the audience laughing in my head as I’m writing the line, or I hear them not getting it or not liking it, and not laughing, and I don’t put it on the paper.
Hope: 00:01:16 Isn’t that wonderful? You get to go to the theater all the time.
Alan: 00:01:19 Yeah. In my own head.
Hope: 00:01:20 Free tickets, right?
Alan: 00:01:23 And you have this wonderful way of telling your own story so vividly and so emotionally, and telling the story of your science with the same voice, same personal tone … Let me just, instead of talking about it, would you read that section we put in front of you?
Hope: 00:01:47 Yeah.
Hope: 00:01:48 No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor, to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope, however feeble, of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous. Indeed it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight.
Hope: 00:02:30 The tiny rootlet has only one chance to guess what the future years, decades, even centuries will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It assesses the light and humidity of the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge.
Alan: 00:02:52 It’s so interesting. When I read that, and you read it very well too, you’re not only a good writer, you’re a good reader. When I first read that I thought, “Jesus, anthropomorphizing science, anthropomorphizing a plant, is that good to do?” And then I realized you were giving me the chance by talking about it in human terms of what it must be like, in a way I can understand what it must be like to be a plant. I doubt if the plant is feeling things. I have no way of knowing whether the plant feels terror at putting out that first root, or the other, you know, having hope. Can a plant have hope?
Alan: 00:03:42 But I can imagine if I were a plant, that what I would feel without hope.
Hope: 00:03:48 Right.
Alan: 00:03:49 And you’re giving me a chance to have empathy for a plant, which I’ve never thought I could have.
Hope: 00:03:56 Yeah. I mean there’s a few things that come into play there, and that’s that the reality is that plants do all the same things we do. They just do it using very different tools and for very different reasons. You know, they grow, they get sick, they heal from sickness, they die, they have offspring, they reproduce. And, they store against future bad times, they do all the things we do. They just do them very differently than we do. We’re kind of stuck in a different world from them.
Hope: 00:04:32 And so, a big part of studying plants well is spending a lot of time imagining, imagining why they’re doing what they do, you know? Because plants don’t, you know, wheat plants don’t have a big old seed because they dutifully want to feed America or something, they have a seed … You know, plants build seeds for their own reason. And, you’ll never understand how to predict a wheat yield or what a crop is gonna do, or what’s gonna end up on the shelf, until you understand that that’s a living being, doing whatever it does for its own reasons.
Hope: 00:05:11 And, the way I talk about it, it makes me smile to hear you say that, because science communication is all about sharing. It’s actually very simple. And, when you’re sharing something that you think is valuable, or something that has given you great joy, if you feel like this is … I’ve lived for a while and this is what I really have to share, you will find the best words you can to talk about it. And, that’s what I always think, is that science communication should be focused on sharing, not on what happens to the information you share, and how much you change that person and what they go off and do or don’t do or whatever. You know, if the quality of sharing is really really high, then good things can’t help but come from that.
Alan: 00:06:00 It’s a little like the way a couple or a parent and child will say to one another, “Wow, look at that sun over there, look at the way the sun is setting tonight. Or look at the beams coming through the clouds.” To notice something that feels extraordinary and to share it with the other person, that’s the first step. I mean, and you really notice, I mean the description you gave of standing in a field of corn and hearing the corn grow, I would call that noticing at a high level.
Hope: 00:06:35 Yeah.
Alan: 00:06:36 What do you hear? What are you listening to when you hear corn grow?
Hope: 00:06:38 Right. So, as plants grow, they basically grow by adding water to certain tissues, so they don’t have muscles like we do. They move, but they don’t it the same way we do. What they do is they soak up water and their tissues expand, and they add cells, and the cells that are already there shift. And, you know that corn is made of these, the husks, this kind of, when it dries it’s really papery, and it’s kind of a wad of these things up the stem. And so, when corn is growing, those are all shifting back and forth. It’s like paper rustling together. And, when corn is growing fast, and in the Midwest in July, you’re getting about, some days you’re getting about an inch or an inch or two a day that it’s adding in height.
Hope: 00:07:27 And so, on a still day with no wind, and you’re in a corn field that goes for acres in every direction, you can hear the rustling and that’s the plants growing around you.
Alan: 00:07:37 That’s an extraordinary [crosstalk 00:07:38]. There used to be a cornfield near where we lived in the country, and when we passed by it, my grandchildren were at that time sprouting themselves. But we’d stopped the car and they’d get out and they’d stand next to a talk of corn that they had measured themselves against a day or two before, and the stalk was now so much more, so much taller compared to them. And it was an exciting experience. If I’d only known then we could stand in the field and listen to the corn growing, we would have done that.
Hope: 00:08:10 Well, it’s a special experience, and maybe somebody listening today will find time to go and try that and let me know how it feels.

MUSIC BRIDGE
In her book, Lab Girl, Hope Jahren describes how as a young Phd student she became fascinated by the rock-hard berries made by a tree common in the mid-west called the hackenberry. She set out to discover what made the berries so hard, working alone at night in borrowed laboratory. And she discovered, to her astonishment, that the berries contained tiny crystals of the mineral opal
Alan: 00:13:52 Did you, when you found out that opal was in the seed, was that something that other people knew?
Hope: 00:14:02 There was a lot of people who told me, there were a lot of people who told me that’s what they would have guessed.
Alan: 00:14:12 But you-
Hope: 00:14:12 That that makes perfect sense to them, said my older colleagues of course.
Alan: 00:14:16 But you actually made a discovery.
Hope: 00:14:17 I was the one who, you know, put in the hours and stayed up all night and got the data that said for sure that was what was there.
Alan: 00:14:25 So, what did that feel like when you made a discovery that pretty much you were the only one on earth who had the data that showed that that was true?
Hope: 00:14:34 Well, it was a strange night. You know, it was in the middle of the night, because it required some instrumentation that had to be shared and that’s when I could get it, and this was before cell phones and before the internet. And so, so I remember it happening in the middle of the night and having to wait until an appropriate time to call somebody and say, “Oh guess what? It worked. This is what I found.” And I remember standing in the lab and watching the sun come up, and realizing that until I told somebody this was my secret, that this was something the universe had given just to me, and that these hours were gonna be hours that I held this in my hand.
Hope: 00:15:20 I mean we’re all looking for proof that the individual matters, that there’s something existentially unique about each one of us. But I feel like for those hours I had the answer to that. And, that wasn’t a cure for cancer or something, right? It was a little piece of information, and I just felt, “Well, if I’m worthy of a small gift like that, maybe someday I’ll be worthy of a big one.” And, I just remember it was such a beautiful lonely moment.
Alan: 00:15:53 Why was it lonely?
Hope: 00:15:55 Well, I was alone, and I was for better or worse, I really believe I was the only person on earth who knew this little thing. And that’s, it’s a lonely place to be. And science can be a very lonely place to be. I also knew that the vast majority of folks that I explained it to would see it as maybe boring or esoteric or nerdy or, you know, all this kinda stuff you worry about when you’re 20-
Alan: 00:16:30 So, how-
Hope: 00:16:32 24.
Alan: 00:16:34 24 to discover something new about nature is very nice.
Hope: 00:16:39 It was one of the great moments of my life.

Alan: 00:08:21 I loved when you said, I’m paraphrasing now and you can correct me, ’cause the way you put words together is very special. But it went something like, you were trying to show, you were exploring not how plants existed in a world that we wanted, but how plants exist in a world that we are also trying to occupy. From the plant’s point of view in other words.
Hope: 00:09:00 Yeah. Yeah. You know, it’s really a fun challenge to bend your mind and to stretch your imagination and to look at … And this is why I think I decided to study plants, is it was really the toughest problem I could think of. I knew it was a problem that would keep me busy my whole life.
Alan: 00:09:18 How did you first get introduced to the idea that you could study plants the way you study them? Did you just happen into a lab that did that or were you drawn to the plants as plants?
Hope: 00:09:29 Yeah. Something very significant happened, and that’s that I was raised … I went to school to become a geologist. So, raised in a sense. And, I also studied soil. And, I got very interested in a type of mineral and plants, as well as people. So, your teeth are minerals, your bones, et cetera. So, lots of organisms make minerals as part of their functioning. The shell on a snail, all his kind of stuff. And plants do it too. The pit of a peach is largely a mineral we call aragonite. Things like that.
Hope: 00:10:04 So, I got interested in a mineral that’s made in the fruit of a hackberry tree. Yeah, it looks like a little cranberry, and these trees are everywhere in the Midwest, but it’s got a hard little pit in it that happens to be made out of opal, and-
Alan: 00:10:20 Opal? You mean the gem?
Hope: 00:10:22 Yeah. The same, you know, on a microscopic scale. It’s not anything you could put into jewelry, and it’s in the form that you find it. But inside, inside the fruit, the plant precipitates opal, and it acts-
Alan: 00:10:35 The plant makes the opal? I thought you needed big geologic forces to produce opal?
Hope: 00:10:41 Not opal in itself, but it’s not dissimilar from the way your body makes teeth.
Alan: 00:10:46 Oh.
Hope: 00:10:47 And bone. But right there inside the cells, there’s a partitioning that can concentrate the ingredients for a mineral and precipitated out.
Alan: 00:10:59 Okay, so I interrupted you. [crosstalk 00:11:00]
Hope: 00:11:00 No.
Alan: 00:11:01 [inaudible 00:11:01] this is mind boggling-
Hope: 00:11:01 I know.
Alan: 00:11:05 If it’s opal in the seeds. So, you got interested in the opal in the seed and then what?
Hope: 00:11:08 Yes. So, our idea was that, you know, the plant comes and goes, but the seed lives a long time. You could find these things in American Indian digs from 10000 years ago. So, what we were hoping was that the, something about the chemistry of the opal will record something about the environment of the time it was made, you know? Was it cold, was it hot, was it, you know, because trees are sensitive to the environment.
Hope: 00:11:38 So, we wanted to … And it would be great to find out if American Indians moved around because they were after a food source that was moving or if they were responding to changes in climate or something else. So, the idea was to measure to opal in all these existing trees and compare it to what we knew was the existing weather. We set up this great experiment, had all this trees, drove around Colorado, [inaudible 00:12:08] and the grand finale was gonna be the sampling.
Hope: 00:12:11 Well, none of the trees at or near my sites made fruit that year. None of them. And, it was impossible to figure out why. When I talked to local farmers and ranchers, they said, “Oh yeah, that sometimes happens.” And, I mean there are reasons why it does happen, but they are mysterious, right? And it just, that summer, it became so clear to me that, you know, these trees weren’t gonna put out this fruit so that I can finish my thesis, you know, in order to faithfully record climate conditions for future paleoclimatologists. They were doing this for their own reasons. This was their fruit, this was their chance to make another tree. This was their chance to go forward another year.
Alan: 00:13:01 So, you were curious about why they didn’t produce fruit that year.
Hope: 00:13:06 Well, it was a big deal that they didn’t. And, the more I thought about why, the more I realized that I would never understand the answer until I started thinking about what they wanted. What were they trying to do when they made a seed? What-
Alan: 00:13:18 So, this idea of thinking about them from their point of view, was really what got you into the whole field.
Hope: 00:13:25 Yeah, that’s right.
Alan: 00:13:26 You automatically thought about it from their point of view.
Hope: 00:13:29 Well, I realized that the only way I was gonna get anywhere, the only way I was really gonna figure out why those seeds didn’t happen, was by taking that approach, by thinking about, “What were those plants trying to do? What is their agenda? How did they see the world?” And, it was fun, and it turned out to be scientifically the right thing to do.

Alan: 00:13:52 Did you, when you found out that opal was in the seed, was that something that other people knew?
Hope: 00:14:02 There was a lot of people who told me, there were a lot of people who told me that’s what they would have guessed.
Alan: 00:14:12 But you-
Hope: 00:14:12 That that makes perfect sense to them, said my older colleagues of course.
Alan: 00:14:16 But you actually made a discovery.
Hope: 00:14:17 I was the one who, you know, put in the hours and stayed up all night and got the data that said for sure that was what was there.
Alan: 00:14:25 So, what did that feel like when you made a discovery that pretty much you were the only one on earth who had the data that showed that that was true?
Hope: 00:14:34 Well, it was a strange night. You know, it was in the middle of the night, because it required some instrumentation that had to be shared and that’s when I could get it, and this was before cell phones and before the internet. And so, so I remember it happening in the middle of the night and having to wait until an appropriate time to call somebody and say, “Oh guess what? It worked. This is what I found.” And I remember standing in the lab and watching the sun come up, and realizing that until I told somebody this was my secret, that this was something the universe had given just to me, and that these hours were gonna be hours that I held this in my hand.
Hope: 00:15:20 I mean we’re all looking for proof that the individual matters, that there’s something existentially unique about each one of us. But I feel like for those hours I had the answer to that. And, that wasn’t a cure for cancer or something, right? It was a little piece of information, and I just felt, “Well, if I’m worthy of a small gift like that, maybe someday I’ll be worthy of a big one.” And, I just remember it was such a beautiful lonely moment.
Alan: 00:15:53 Why was it lonely?
Hope: 00:15:55 Well, I was alone, and I was for better or worse, I really believe I was the only person on earth who knew this little thing. And that’s, it’s a lonely place to be. And science can be a very lonely place to be. I also knew that the vast majority of folks that I explained it to would see it as maybe boring or esoteric or nerdy or, you know, all this kinda stuff you worry about when you’re 20-
Alan: 00:16:30 So, how-
Hope: 00:16:32 24.
Alan: 00:16:34 24 to discover something new about nature is very nice.
Hope: 00:16:39 It was one of the great moments of my life.
Alan: 00:16:42 So, what did you feel you might have to explain to people about that? What difference does it make that opal is in the seed of that plant?
Hope: 00:16:52 Right. So, it’s a long story, right? I have to start with, you know, it covers a lot of ground, it covers everything from, American Indian history to the fact that you have teeth and bones, to the fact that trees make seeds for a reason, to … I mean that’s one of the things in science, is there’s never time to really walk somebody through the whole story. I think we’re forced into these soundbites, you know, is this good? Is this bad? Should we be afraid of it? Is it gonna solve something?
Hope: 00:17:32 You know, but the story of science is much longer and more, you know, it’s a friendly conversation. It’s not-
Alan: 00:17:45 And one understanding is built on many other understandings.
Hope: 00:17:50 Yeah, yeah.
Alan: 00:17:50 And, for those of us in the public who haven’t studied it lifelong as you have, those underlying understandings are hard to fathom.
Hope: 00:18:02 Yeah. And it’s important to know that those people you talk to, maybe they haven’t spent their life doing science, but they’ve spent their life doing a lot of things. There are folks that know about, they’ve traveled roads you haven’t. And that’s what’s so special about the idea that you could share that moment for a minute. And that’s the impetus to do it well, is that in some ways, by making that connection you get benefits of somebody else’s life.
Hope: 00:18:32 And, I don’t know, I just, I could go on and on about how good that feels.
Alan: 00:18:39 It must feel wonderful because you’re sharing a passion and that’s a valuable thing. I don’t wanna corner you into soundbite, but I’m really curious, what is the opal doing in the seed? What benefit does the seed have by having this opal thing in it? Is it helping strengthen it while it waits till it’s ready to sprout or what?
Hope: 00:19:03 Well, it’s probably a whole range of things. It probably helps it not break when it falls from great height. It’s probably hard to chew, so a squirrel probably gets to know that and picks something else. It is very cheap to do, so the atoms that come in for that opal are stuff the plant can’t use anyway, and it comes in from the soil, you gotta do something of it, so it may be kind of a garbage dump in a way.
Hope: 00:19:33 I’ve been asking a lot of trees that, and so far they haven’t given me a verbal answer, but these are the things … I think the neat thing is that the answer is always more than one thing. It’s sort of like why do you, why did you wear that shirt today? “Well, it’s my favorite shirt and my wife really likes it, and all my other shirts were dirty.” And, you know, why is always a question that has more than one answer.
Alan: 00:19:58 Well, okay. Now my curiosity, which just propels me further-
Hope: 00:20:03 Sure.
Alan: 00:20:04 If the squirrels tooth can’t get into the nut, into the seed, how can a root get out?
Hope: 00:20:12 Right. So, most seeds have kind of a magic sesame formula associated with-
Alan: 00:20:19 Oh, like it opens the door for-
Hope: 00:20:21 Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, most seeds, a seed is a funny thing, because of course you wanna get out of it. In order to be a tree, you gotta get outta this little thing, right? Sooner or later. But you also want it to be a package that can sit there for days, weeks, months, right? Because you wanna wait for the right time to come out.
Hope: 00:20:41 And so, a lot of seeds have a special trigger. Some seeds need a fire to come through. Some seeds need the rainy season to start or the sunny season to start. And so, it’s almost like all seeds are waiting for something slightly different. And then, they jump in the pool and hope that that trigger was a good signal. So, there’s risk. Most seeds, can you imagine what the world would be like if every single seed took root?
Alan: 00:21:14 The odds are so much in favor of no seed getting-
Hope: 00:21:19 Anywhere.
Alan: 00:21:23 A root. Because, I think you said it’s a million to one or more than that.
Hope: 00:21:24 Yeah. And so, what if you put out … I mean humans do reproduction very differently, right? But an elm tree puts out a couple hundred thousand seeds a year, and in order to claim that space for elm-dom, over the long haul, you need one of them to succeed every, what, 50 years, right? And so, the statistics are just mind bending. But to sit in that place year after year, make a hundred thousand seeds, and the expectation that one of them over the decades will take root and grow up to be a tree.
Hope: 00:22:00 I always think, you know, what purer, more accurate definition of hope could you possibly come up with?
Alan: 00:22:09 Oh that’s that-
Hope: 00:22:12 How could it be possibly wrong to say that that tree is hoping for something?

Alan: 00:22:19 You stunned me with that because I can’t imagine how I could think of a tree hoping. But you helped me see the world from the tree’s point of view. And that’s a wonderful communication device that you use. But then I think in the same paragraph or the next paragraph as I remember it from the one you just read, you talk about once the roots start to occur under the ground, they’re in communication with roots from nearby trees. Am I right about that?
Hope: 00:22:56 Right. Right.
Alan: 00:22:56 So what’s all that?
Hope: 00:22:57 Right. So, plants have ways of giving information to other plants. And this is part of the weird thing about scientific communication is, is the right way to say that would be, you know, let’s excrete hormones that are picked up by other rootlets and the Jasmonic acid is transported between, you know … And that’s the right way.
Alan: 00:23:22 That’s great. Yeah.
Hope: 00:23:22 That’s, [inaudible 00:23:23], you know.
Alan: 00:23:24 That’s the science language.
Hope: 00:23:25 That’s the right way.
Alan: 00:23:25 But most of us humans don’t know that language. We haven’t learned it.
Hope: 00:23:29 Yeah. So, that’s not anthropomorphic, good, good, good, good, but the problem is, nobody understands what the heck you’re saying if you do it that way. So, let’s use bad, bad, bad, bad language. So, the root reaches out and sends a signal to the root over who hears it and moves it through its tissues. And now I’ve used all these, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad words. So, send here, move, those are things that plants don’t do. That’s a anthropomorphic [inaudible 00:24:00].
Alan: 00:23:59 Right.
Hope: 00:24:00 But in order to really talk to you, I’ve gotta use the words we share. If I do it as accurately as I possibly can, but I only use words that we share. That was one of the rules I gave myself when I wrote the book, is I’m not gonna use any word in there that you have to look up.
Hope: 00:26:04 And, do you make something special if you take that rule to heart? It was one of the great joys of my life to try.

MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 00:11:05 If it’s opal in the seeds. So, you got interested in the opal in the seed and then what?
Hope: 00:11:08 Yes. So, our idea was that, you know, the plant comes and goes, but the seed lives a long time. You could find these things in American Indian digs from 10000 years ago. So, what we were hoping was that the, something about the chemistry of the opal will record something about the environment of the time it was made, you know? Was it cold, was it hot, was it, you know, because trees are sensitive to the environment.
Hope: 00:11:38 So, we wanted to … And it would be great to find out if American Indians moved around because they were after a food source that was moving or if they were responding to changes in climate or something else. So, the idea was to measure to opal in all these existing trees and compare it to what we knew was the existing weather. We set up this great experiment, had all this trees, drove around Colorado, [inaudible 00:12:08] and the grand finale was gonna be the sampling.
Hope: 00:12:11 Well, none of the trees at or near my sites made fruit that year. None of them. And, it was impossible to figure out why. When I talked to local farmers and ranchers, they said, “Oh yeah, that sometimes happens.” And, I mean there are reasons why it does happen, but they are mysterious, right? And it just, that summer, it became so clear to me that, you know, these trees weren’t gonna put out this fruit so that I can finish my thesis, you know, in order to faithfully record climate conditions for future paleoclimatologists. They were doing this for their own reasons. This was their fruit, this was their chance to make another tree. This was their chance to go forward another year.
Alan: 00:13:01 So, you were curious about why they didn’t produce fruit that year.
Hope: 00:13:06 Well, it was a big deal that they didn’t. And, the more I thought about why, the more I realized that I would never understand the answer until I started thinking about what they wanted. What were they trying to do when they made a seed? What-
Alan: 00:13:18 So, this idea of thinking about them from their point of view, was really what got you into the whole field.
Hope: 00:13:25 Yeah, that’s right.
Alan: 00:13:26 You automatically thought about it from their point of view.
Hope: 00:13:29 Well, I realized that the only way I was gonna get anywhere, the only way I was really gonna figure out why those seeds didn’t happen, was by taking that approach, by thinking about, “What were those plants trying to do? What is their agenda? How did they see the world?” And, it was fun, and it turned out to be scientifically the right thing to do.

Alan: 00:24:04 I think so.
Hope: 00:24:05 And, if I’m breaking the rules and being anthropomorphic, then that’s a small price to pay for actually connecting with you and getting through.

Alan: 00:24:13 I was thinking just yesterday, that if I wanted to explain something to an audience, and I spoke to them in Mandarin, it probably wouldn’t explain much to many people unless the audience spoke Mandarin.
Hope: 00:24:27 Yeah, yeah.
Alan: 00:24:28 And that’s what we face when it’s insisted that we hear it in the official scientific language, because there’s a reason for that language. It helps be precise, it helps people understand exactly what they’re talking about if they put two things together in the lab, they don’t wanna put two things that are sort of like what you put together, they gotta be exact.
Hope: 00:24:49 Yeah. And it creates a barrier. I mean, that’s the funny thing is that, it’s a little like how the Russian czars all spoke French to each other, but of course everybody else in Russia was speaking Russian. Science is on some level very invested in the idea that this is a very hard thing that not everybody can do. And part of protecting that, you know, that special status is by speaking a language that people generally don’t understand. And, if somebody’s using big words you don’t understand, well of course they’re doing something hard, right?
Hope: 00:25:27 And so, we talk a lot about how we want more people to enjoy science and more people to do science, and more kids to go into science. And yet we cling to these traditions that actually put up very strong walls against that. And what happens when you break all those rules? I mean that was what I wanted to know with that book. What happens if I just, if I do it as accurately as I possibly can, but I only use words that we share. That was one of the rules I gave myself when I wrote the book, is I’m not gonna use any word in there that you have to look up.
Hope: 00:26:04 And, do you make something special if you take that rule to heart? It was one of the great joys of my life to try.
Hope Jahren’s determination to pursue her own path has served her well. And being a female scientist, she believes, has given her what she calls in her book Lab Girl, “a delicious freedom” to make it up as she goes along. She explains after this short break.
MIDROLL
This is C+V, and now back to my conversation with Hope Jahren.
Alan: 00:26:14 You seem to have an interesting relationship with rules. You don’t do them. You know they exist but you don’t always conform to them if it doesn’t get you what you, doesn’t get your work done that you wanna get done. You know what I’m thinking of?
Hope: 00:26:33 Yeah.
Alan: 00:26:35 Can I ask you to read one more thing?
Hope: 00:26:37 Of course.
Alan: 00:26:39 This really interested me.
Hope: 00:26:41 Okay.
Hope: 00:26:43 I have been admonished for being too feminine, and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am. And it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.
Alan: 00:27:19 Do you kind of had your own take on the rule of stereotypes about, and people had opposing stereotypes of you, which I suppose happens to a lot of people, but it seems to happen an awful lot to women in science. You can’t be authoritative without being a bitch and you can’t be accommodating without being a pushover and know nothing. How have you handled that?
Hope: 00:27:46 Well, I think there, you know, as a woman in the world, there’s always kind of efforts to police your behavior in all kinds of different situations. I think being different was liberating in a way. I knew that no matter how much science I did, no matter how many discoveries I made, I was never gonna be the guy walking across campus with the beard and the pipe and the elbow patches, that everybody would say, “Oh, there goes the professor,” right?
Hope: 00:28:13 So, I was never gonna have that reward. So, I had to think very carefully about why am I doing this? What do I wanna get out of this? What is it all about? What is it for? And, answering those questions for myself and to myself was something I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Alan: 00:28:33 I remember talking with Jill Handelsman who did a study where she sent out resumes to labs, and so they were [inaudible 00:28:48] applying for a job. The resumes were identical. But the names on the resumes, half of them male and half were female. Those that had the male names got offered more jobs for more money. And even when asked do you think this person is serious about science, on the basis of the same resume, they said the women were less serious about science in their opinion.
Alan: 00:29:12 So, did you experience that kind of barrier?
Hope: 00:29:17 Sure. But you people are wrong. People say things and decide things and they’re not always right, you know? I think there were a lot of folks who underestimated me. I knew they were underestimating me at the time, and the other thing was I had, you know, I was getting so much … I always felt lucky. I always felt like I was getting away with something by getting to do this job. I got to, you know, all these people telling me how to be a science or telling me my science wasn’t worth anything, they didn’t go back to the basement and get to work with their best friend all night, you know?
Hope: 00:29:57 So, I always felt like I had, you know, it didn’t matter what they told me. I was having the last laugh just because I was getting so much joy out of it. And, I didn’t listen to what they said, I just focused, I was just so terrified it would all end, that was the only effect it had on me. I was just so terrified that somehow this negative actually meant that someday we’d lose the keys, and we couldn’t come in and do it.
Alan: 00:30:23 The idea that someone would say your exploration into how nature works wouldn’t be worth something is odd to me because-
Hope: 00:30:33 Oh that’s great. I would die for somebody to say it that nicely and with that much thought to it, and, you know, all, like no profanity and no slurs and stuff. That’s music to my ears really.
Alan: 00:30:51 Wow. But I mean, the whole idea of science is to just try to figure out how things work without caring whether it matters to anybody at the moment.
Hope: 00:31:02 Yeah, it is. But, you know, the great tragedy of science is that it’s done by people.
Alan: 00:31:07 [inaudible 00:31:07] to the squirrel.
Hope: 00:31:11 And we want, we want-
Alan: 00:31:12 Other trees.
Hope: 00:31:13 Anything. And we want science to be more noble than it is. But we want politics to be more noble than it is. We want show business to be more noble than it is. And, it’s up to us to foster that nobility in ourselves. I mean I always knew on some level that it mattered more when I thought about what I was doing, than what somebody else thought, but I was also very sensitive to the idea that this person might or might not be able to shut me out. And, you know, I don’t know what I did. But somehow I’m still here.
Alan: 00:31:52 Did you develop … Now I remember reading or hearing in an interview that you have advised fellow female scientists on what to do if they get a letter or an email from a male colleague, sometimes somebody in a superior position to them on whom they depend for a recommendation or their thesis advisor or somebody like that, and they suddenly get an email saying, “Here’s what I’m feeling about you. You’re stuck with my feelings. I can’t get you out of my mind.”
Hope: 00:32:24 Yeah.
Alan: 00:32:25 What do you suggest when somebody gets an email like that?
Hope: 00:32:28 Well, it sucks. I tell them that it sucks and I tell them that this is very very common, because people usually feel isolated in that. And I say, “You need to think about what it will take for you to go forward and thrive.” Because, he isn’t the important part of this, and what he’s doing and all that kind of stuff, is that I try to bring the focus back on them and say, “What’s important to me about this is that you come through the other side thriving.” And then there’s the practical stuff like, you know, keep copies and document everything, you know, because the same people telling you to ignore this stuff are the same people that will come to you one day and say, “Why didn’t you do something when it first happened?”
Alan: 00:33:17 Right. Right.
Hope: 00:33:18 And I also tell them that, you know, this is part of a much larger problem between men and women’s inability to live as brother and sister in our society, and truly to share things as equals. And, you know, you can leave science, but there is no great Disneyland out there where this kinda business doesn’t happen unfortunately.
Hope: 00:33:45 So, I can’t in good conscience tell them to leave science, you know? Because I can’t be sure that there’s anywhere you can go and not-
Alan: 00:33:58 Not find the same thing.
Hope: 00:33:59 You know, face this reality.
Alan: 00:34:00 Yeah, right. So, what do you do, what’s your recommendation for the first, or the first shadow of over the [inaudible 00:34:07], the first email says I can’t get you out of my mind. Do you ignore it? Do you come back right away with a sharp response? Do you risk losing the professional help you need from this person? What do you recommend?
Hope: 00:34:21 Yeah. It’s one of the roughest things that you go through as a established person or as somebody’s mentor or whatever. It’s really, really hard, you know? You know, if somebody comes to you and says, “I broke my leg. Look, my leg is broken.” You know what to say, you say, “Let’s go over to the hospital and I’ll put a cast on you, this is how we make it better.”
Alan: 00:34:45 Well you could say the same thing when he says I can’t get you out of my mind. Let’s go to the hospital and put a cast on.
Hope: 00:34:51 Well, yeah. Yeah.
Alan: 00:34:53 There’s no hospital that’ll take him for that unfortunately.
Hope: 00:34:56 Well …
Alan: 00:34:56 Or fortunately or not.
Hope: 00:34:59 Yes. Violence is not the answer.
Alan: 00:35:00 No.
Hope: 00:35:00 But, so there’s nothing I can say that’s a for sure cure for what’s going on. There’s legal considerations, document everything, keep copies of it, start a diary. It is useful to fire back right away and say, “I don’t feel this way about you and this communication is a problem for me at the workplace.” Because later on if you file a more formal complaint, it always comes up, you know, “Why didn’t you say something, did he know you didn’t like it? Was it all fun and games until you got spurned,” and [inaudible 00:35:44].
Hope: 00:35:44 And so, it is useful to be able to document the unwantedness of this interaction, because sometimes it does take a while for something to happen. I mean if there was an answer, if there was a way to fix it, we wouldn’t have it, right?
Alan: 00:36:03 Right. Right.
Hope: 00:36:04 So, it’s tricky. I mean I’m glad we live in an era where we can talk about these things. I think of what women went through in the workplace 50 years ago, what was standard operating procedure, and the fact that my grandmother never was able to enter the workforce, and that could have been something she wanted in her life, but it wasn’t even an option. And so, I try to focus on the really big picture of moving forward and just being grateful for … Gosh. I don’t know how to end that one.
Alan: 00:36:46 Well, I think what you alluded to a second ago was how the conversation has finally evolved to the point where it’s not so much the only thing to consider, what the intention of a remark or an email is, but to also consider how it’s, to consider how it’s received, and to verbalize early on how it’s received, and that that is a factor in the transaction. And, once that is now exposed as an exchange that is expected, a response is expected, then it sounds to me like it’s less likely for the aggression to persist.
Hope: 00:37:35 Yeah. And, you know, it’s easy to bring these things down to the individual level. What did he do? What did she say when he did it or whatever, but it’s important to acknowledge that there are really large scale institutional interactions at place. I’ve personally seen how universities close rank and stand together against somebody who is having a hard time being harassed, you know what I mean? There are mechanisms in place to perpetuate this, and you can document everything you want, you can keep whatever diary you want, but if you’re at an institution that is determined to overlook this kind of thing, that’s what’s gonna happen.
Hope: 00:38:22 And if our institutions didn’t work that way, they would be very different institutions. And I don’t know if we’re, you know, what if we’re not ready for that? That’s the really terrifying thing, is that what if this marginalization or this excision of women is necessary to maintain the way [inaudible 00:38:52] academia works. I mean that’s the question that I’m, that’s the big picture thing that I’m working on when I advise individual after individual after individual.
Alan: 00:39:08 Tell me more about that. What’s the big picture?
Hope: 00:39:10 How do I change our institutions such that what is acceptable across department and across faculty groups, that we raise the bar for how we treat women when they become scholars, you know? That’s the big picture, that’s the change we wanna see when, that’s what I focus on when I’m advising individual after individual after individual who’s going through this.
Alan: 00:39:40 Yeah. Because it’s not only an individual problem, it’s pervasive. So, if you don’t deal with the overall template, it’s gonna keep producing new questions, new problems.
Hope: 00:39:54 Like the roots, if you don’t dig out the roots, it’s always gonna grow back.
Alan: 00:40:00 Tell me more about plants. This book, Lab Girl, is such a beautiful, a beautiful relating of your life with plants and your life with humans up till now. What’s next on your agenda with plants? What are you thinking about now?
Hope: 00:40:22 Well, when I wrote the book, I sat down and I thought really hard about what I know about plants and what gives me joy to think about them, and why I appear to kinda look outside and see things differently than folks who have walked another path and folks who spent all that time in law school or, you know, selling something, or had a different life. And I wrote all that stuff down and it’s a good book and I’m proud of it.
Hope: 00:40:49 But, my challenges are different now. Now I wanna communicate about something more layered and something with higher stakes. So, my next book is on global change. And, it’s a book that really talks to people about where this came from and talks about the last 50 years, that this isn’t a recent thing, this is the harvest of what the last 50 years of industrialization have brought us. And then if you look deeply at your own life, you see echoes of how these things happened. And, to pull the reader in, in a storytelling way, and in a hopeful way, and if I do have a different voice, can I use it to communicate about what, you know, is the most important issue of our generation.
Alan: 00:41:53 Sounds like you’re dealing with the, what we mentioned before, what the world is like for the plants with us occupying their world. We’ve been doing things I hear you saying, we’ve been doing things to make life hard for plants, which in turn is making life hard for us.
Hope: 00:42:17 Right. And, I’m turning 50 this year, and so, that’s half a century. So, I’m looking at, you know, what, so I’ve changed in the last 50 years, but how has the world changed? And, you can see these things in your own life. When my mom went back to nursing school, and went back to work, it was me and my dad eating, and we ate a lot more TV dinners and packaged foods and stuff like that. And, that was our thing together on Wednesday nights or whatever, but that was part of a much larger phenomenon, in that when a lot of women left the home and went to work, what became a staple in the kitchen changed a lot.
Hope: 00:43:03 And, folks stopped baking bread and doing things from ingredients, and they bought more packaged food. Well, that in turn, it tweaked, the meat industry was born, corn production went up like crazy, yield production went up like crazy, there was a need for stuff that would keep, right?
Alan: 00:43:31 Shelf life.
Hope: 00:43:31 Yeah, exactly. And now we have, and that process-
Alan: 00:43:35 We’re shortening our own shelf life in the process.
Hope: 00:43:37 Well, and that process has accelerated madly. You know, now you have a cupcake that can sit on a shelf for two years in a vending machine or something. I mean I’d defy you and go home and try to bake one that’ll last two years, right?
Alan: 00:43:49 Right.
Hope: 00:43:52 So, aqua culture was born because a lot of the oils are replaced with extracts from seaweed, right? And, we turned all that corn into sugar which keeps really well. And now we’ve got so much sugar we’ve turned it into ethanol to burn in our cars. So, we grow crops and then we extract compounds and then we turn them back into fuel. And, we’ve got these weird sort of Mobius strips associated with this compulsion to make more and use more and even have to waste more, you know? We’re growing so much food, we’ve gotta throw away 30% of it.
Hope: 00:44:30 And yet we live in a world with a good billion people that are living on much much too little.
Alan: 00:44:41 And we don’t seem to be as aware … Excuse me.
Hope: 00:44:46 No problem.
Alan: 00:44:47 This is something we’ll cut out.
Alan: 00:44:51 We don’t seem to be aware of the unintended consequences of a lot of what we do. I was reading in a science or nature, it was some science journal, that McDonald’s insist instead all their French fries be the same length, has caused more fertilization of potatoes to get the same size potato, which has then drifted into the waters and the nearby rivers and poisoned the water.
Hope: 00:45:22 Yeah.
Alan: 00:45:23 And, you go to buy some French fries, you don’t think that the cost of the French fries is not just 50 cents or whatever it is, it’s clear water.
Hope: 00:45:34 Yeah. And the scale at which we do all these things has gone up dramatically, sort of a, almost a log scale change, in that we’ve now got folks that are getting several meals a week from McDonald’s. So it’s not just, you know, and we’ve got some people who want potatoes a certain way, it’s that now there’s a market for acres and acres and acres of these potatoes, and the fertilizer that uses it, et cetera.
Hope: 00:45:59 So, there’s this kind of run away effect associated with the last 50 years, that for we adopted all these new techniques, and then instead of using them to sorta satiate ourselves and curb consumption, we just slammed down the accelerator and now we use more and do more, and use more and do more. And, we need to stop and ask ourselves if it’s really making our lives better.
Alan: 00:46:30 This whole conversation has prompted a question that I hope it’s not too personal. I understand, in fact I was vegan for a few years, I really understand the urge not to eat animal meat. You’ve made me so aware of what the plant is going through-
Hope: 00:46:53 Yeah, right.
Alan: 00:46:53 Now do I have to give up vegetables? What am I gonna eat, rocks?
Hope: 00:46:56 Right.
Alan: 00:46:57 Those nuts with opal in them, what’s left?
Hope: 00:47:01 Right. So, this is-
Alan: 00:47:02 Do you find it hard to eat plants? That’s the personal part.
Hope: 00:47:05 Yeah. People are … When people meet me they’re disappointed in two things. One is that I’m not taller. Apparently I write like a tall person.
Alan: 00:47:17 That’s funny.
Hope: 00:47:17 And the other is that I don’t love plants more unconditionally than I do. And I always wanna say, you know, if you’ve had as many plants seriously mess with your life as I have, you would develop a complicated love/hate-
Alan: 00:47:29 Name one time when a plant messed with your life? That sounds interesting.
Hope: 00:47:32 Right. So, we grow a lot of Arabidopsis, which is a little, it’s a little kinda [inaudible 00:47:37] plant that a lot of scientist work on.
Alan: 00:47:39 What is it?
Hope: 00:47:39 It’s in the mustard family.
Alan: 00:47:42 So, how can that hurt you?
Hope: 00:47:43 No, no, no, it’s just that you grow them and you wanna do something with them, and they all die, you know? They don’t grow or the lights go out and there’s a power outage and they all die. And, it’s like, or they don’t just, the experiment just doesn’t work for some unknown reason.
Alan: 00:48:04 Oh, so the frustration messes with your life.
Hope: 00:48:04 Well, and sometimes it really can seem like they’re doing it just to … Because …
Alan: 00:48:11 Wait a minute.
Hope: 00:48:11 Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay.
Alan: 00:48:14 Wait a minute.
Hope: 00:48:14 Okay. You know, you don’t do this for decades without developing some issues, right? But, and plant experiments are really intense, right, because you plant these things, you have a hundred of them, so it takes you three hours just to water them all twice a day, and you have to do it before sun comes up. And, by the time they’re four weeks old and you’re gonna harvest them and analyze them for the results, by the time they’re four weeks old, you’re on the verge exhaustion, you’re sleeping in the field in your sleeping bag, and it feels pretty good to cut these things up, after-
Alan: 00:48:49 That’s funny.
Hope: 00:48:51 After they flat out controlled your waking hours for the last bit. So, it’s, you know, you don’t just learn about the plants, you learn about yourself when you do these things.
Alan: 00:49:01 Well, you have that wonderful epilogue where you kind of cut through what you just described.
Hope: 00:49:07 Yeah.
Alan: 00:49:07 And you encourage us to get to know a tree.
Hope: 00:49:10 Yeah.
Alan: 00:49:11 And you reminded me of my wife Arlene who loves plants so much. She knows the names of so many flowers and I don’t know those names. So, I try to top her, we’ll be walking in a garden and I’ll say, “Look at that wonderful hydrofloxy,” you know I make it up.”
Hope: 00:49:31 Yeah, I mean-
Alan: 00:49:32 But I can’t top her. But she-
Hope: 00:49:33 You know, those-
Alan: 00:49:33 She loves plants so much-
Hope: 00:49:35 Those names only exist for a reason, because somebody made them up.
Alan: 00:49:39 Well, to be able to, just like I did, right.
Hope: 00:49:41 Just like you did. Somebody just-
Alan: 00:49:42 Right. Yeah, yeah.
Hope: 00:49:43 Cut that thing out.
Alan: 00:49:43 But I can’t remember which one I called a hydrofloxy, that’s the only problem. But she has turned one of our rooms into a kind of a hot house, and she’s growing a fig tree in the room. And she drove a hundred miles a couple of days ago just to water it.
Hope: 00:49:56 Oh. Well, and I always tell people, you know, that’s the real reason to study science, is it’s not … Do you remember Tang?
Alan: 00:50:06 Tang?
Hope: 00:50:07 Tang, you know.
Alan: 00:50:08 Tang, the wonderful, one of the only things we got out of the space program.
Hope: 00:50:11 There you go, there you go. They put people on the moon in order to make, you know, Tang was it a big pay off? And all those people that study physics all their lives and sacrificed and all the engineers and all the people that risked their lives-
Alan: 00:50:24 What was it made of anyway? What was in it?
Hope: 00:50:26 Well, Tang-afloxafloria.
Hope: 00:50:31 But, you know, in some ways that’s not good enough. We do these things because it feels good and because it makes us look at the world differently. And I also firmly believe that the more you know about the world, the more you feel like you’re part of it. And that’s why we should teach science, that’s why we should share it, is because there’s not a lot else that does that, you know? And I’ve seen it. You teach somebody 10 different trees and they walk down the street differently, ’cause they know the name of this one and that one and this one. And it’s-
Alan: 00:51:06 It takes us back to that earliest thing we talked about, about the standing in the cornfield and noticing the sound of corn growing.
Hope: 00:51:12 Yeah.
Alan: 00:51:13 And you’ve spent a whole life doing that.
Hope: 00:51:15 Yeah. And, there’s something about that that’s, it’s good for the soul and it’s good for your self-esteem and it feels good. Kids love that stuff. You can’t start too early with that. And I did a lot of that sort of thing with my dad. So, if there’s one thing I know how to do it’s to tell those kinds of stories.
Alan: 00:51:36 Well you sure tell them great. I think we’re sort of out of time for our conversation, but we end these conversations with seven questions. Are you game for that?
Hope: 00:51:44 You bet.
Alan: 00:51:45 Quick questions and quick answers, you don’t have to-
Hope: 00:51:49 Oh, there was only one thing that I really was hoping to say…
Alan: 00:51:51 Oh sure, go ahead.
Hope: 00:51:52 Was hoping to say.
Alan: 00:51:55 Let me clear my throat so I can hear it. Sure, go ahead. Wait a minute, Graham has an idea.
Alan: 00:52:07 Oh, right. Is that okay? Do you mind talking about that? Oh, you didn’t heart it did you?
Hope: 00:52:10 I can’t read lips.
Alan: 00:52:14 You can read plants.
Alan: 00:52:17 Yeah he was saying it would be nice if you could give us a quick word on your present research, particularly with regard to carbon dioxide and how it affects plants.
Hope: 00:52:27 Yeah. So, in a way carbon dioxide is like, it’s a little like food to plants.
Alan: 00:52:36 Yeah.
Hope: 00:52:36 You bet.
Alan: 00:52:37 Tell me, after all the wonderful research that I read about in your book, and I get the feeling you’re advancing to another interest, another aspect of this, what are you working on now?
Hope: 00:52:52 Right. So, we talk about elevated CO2, you know, greenhouse gases going up in the atmosphere, and those gases, carbon dioxide, are like, they’re like money to plants. It’s something they need and want. So, we’re living in this world where carbon dioxide is getting so high that, you know, imagine if you went to Time’s Square and you just dropped $10000 into everybody’s pocket, which is essentially what the atmosphere is doing to plants. All of a sudden they’ve got all this money, and every person in Time’s Square would use that differently.
Hope: 00:53:25 Some people would run straight to their bookie, and some people would pay their rent for the next however many months, and some people would buy their loved ones something, et cetera. And plants do that too. We see with the CO2 fertilization, we see every plant making a different choice. But, the really interesting thing to me is, and not everybody agrees with me, though they should, no, is that I think we’re coming into a time when money doesn’t matter to a plant.
Hope: 00:54:00 So, if you’d went to Time’s Square and you did that $10000 thing, but you did it twice a day to everybody who was there, so after a couple of worlds, after a couple of years, you’d be living in a world where kinda money didn’t matter. And people didn’t make choices based on how much this’ll cost or that’ll cost. They’d make choices according to something totally different. How much time will this take and how do I spend the time that it takes? Or, you know, something else would kinda take over when money didn’t matter.
Hope: 00:54:33 And, I have a lot of theories about what will plants do once carbon doesn’t matter anymore? What is the thing that they’ll care about then? What is the thing that they’ll use to decide between one activity and another? And, those are the kind of experiments we’re doing now. Experiments at very very high CO2.
Alan: 00:54:54 You put a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere that the plants take in.
Hope: 00:54:57 Yes.
Alan: 00:54:58 And what are you finding? Or what are you looking to find?
Hope: 00:55:01 Well, they partition differently. I mean that’s a simple thing.
Alan: 00:55:01 What do you mean they partition?
Hope: 00:55:05 So, anytime you walk down the street and you look at plants, you’re seeing only about half of them. So, the roots are extensive, right? They’re about half of the plant is underground where you can’t see it. And that half and half, when they grow, you put half above ground, put half down below ground, that’s pretty standard across most plants. And what we’re seeing at those very very high levels is that they tend to put more underground than above ground.
Alan: 00:55:33 And what difference does that make?
Hope: 00:55:35 Well, it makes a big difference to a planet with a lot of hungry people on it that are dependent on things like rice and wheat and corn, while all that stuff’s above ground. What about yams and potatoes and-
Alan: 00:55:50 And what about them? What happens with yams and potatoes?
Hope: 00:55:52 Well, the part underground gets bigger, they get that bump at that very high CO2. So, if we’re gonna take advantage, well of if we’re in a place where we’re trying to salvage some of the side effects of all this CO2, we need to start thinking forward about what it’s gonna do to our crops, what it’s gonna do to our forests.
Alan: 00:56:17 So, yams and potatoes for instance, they get a lot of CO2, doesn’t that mean they’ll get bigger and get bigger faster and wouldn’t that be good for us?
Hope: 00:56:28 So, then you’ve got, you know, if I tripled your … What’s your favorite dessert?
Alan: 00:56:38 Ice cream.
Hope: 00:56:38 Okay. So, if I tripled your ice cream consumption, would you get bigger?
Alan: 00:56:44 Yes.
Hope: 00:56:46 Would it be a good thing?
Alan: 00:56:49 Not for getting through the door, no.
Hope: 00:56:51 And would your necktie size get bigger? No, but would your belt size get bigger, right?
Alan: 00:56:57 Yes.
Hope: 00:56:57 So, bigger isn’t always better. And we see the same thing in plants.
Alan: 00:57:02 So what, there’s less nutrition in them as far as we’re concerned?
Hope: 00:57:06 Well, that’s great. So, any carbon based element, you know, there’s a lot more of, like sugar. But any nitrogen based element like protein, actually goes down. So, and there’s an awful lot of the world that can’t afford for the nitrogen content of sweet potato to go down.
Alan: 00:57:28 Has this all happened already? I mean do you think there’s some connection between CO2 in the atmosphere and obesity? Does anybody know if that’s connected?
Hope: 00:57:40 I think yeah, I mean that’s a lot more straightforward according to how diet has changed and how activity patterns hae changed, due to the demands of, you know, how we’ve constructed American society.
Alan: 00:58:00 So, [inaudible 00:58:01] the disconnect would be one of many factors.
Hope: 00:58:00 It would be pretty far away on the cause and effect chain. What was I gonna say? Oh, the thing I really did wanna say was that, You were talking about is it right to be a vegan, was it better to be a vegetarian, is it okay to eat meat? I get asked these moral questions sometimes. And, one thing to think about is that it’s not all one or the other. It’s not about whether you eat meat, it’s about how many times a week you eat meat.
Hope: 00:58:33 I mean that there are spaces in between these morally charged positions, you know? And also, this is gonna be the great question before humanity of the 21st century, is how do you exploit a resource and coexist with it at the same time? Because we are gonna need to farm crops, we’re gonna need to eat vegetables. We gotta eat something. And that’s just not gonna go away.
Hope: 00:59:05 Now does that mean we have to blast every forest down to nothing so we can plant as much as possible and grown as much as possible and throw away as much as possible? You know? It doesn’t have to mean that. Where is the space where we both exploit and coexist in terms of natural resources? I think that is the big, I think that’s the big challenge for us as human being in this next century.
Alan: 00:59:32 Well, I can’t wait to read your next book, ’cause I know it’s going to be-
Hope: 00:59:36 It’s the story of how we got here and it’s a really hopeful story about what we do now, you know? If we had the tools and the wherewithal to make these problems, then we have the tools and the wherewithal to solve them. I know that sounds naïve, but I really believe it. I really do. And, I can’t wait to see the ways in which we try. You know, there’s no guarantees, but I know a lot of people that are ready, willing, and able to try and it’s a wonderful thing.
Alan: 01:00:07 Great. Let me ask you these seven questions.
Hope: 01:00:10 Yes.
Alan: 01:00:12 What do you wish you really understood?
Hope: 01:00:14 How to cut somebody open.
Alan: 01:00:29 I think I need to hear a second sentence on that one.
Hope: 01:00:34 I always wanted-
Alan: 01:00:35 Would this be like your old advisor in graduate school?
Hope: 01:00:37 No. No.
Alan: 01:00:39 What do you mean how to cut somebody open?
Hope: 01:00:41 Well, for a long time I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a surgeon.
Alan: 01:00:45 Oh, oh, I see.
Hope: 01:00:47 And, you know, graduate school in science is, you know, you get paid a little bit, and medical school costs a lot. So, I went the science route. But I always had this fascination with … And, I’m good with my hands, I can be decisive under pressure and all this stuff. So, I thought I might have a chance at being a decent surgeon, but I just love the idea of being able to cut somebody open and then sow them up again, and somehow they walk away from it. I mean and it must be really, matter a lot how you do it, right?
Alan: 01:01:23 Yeah. I bet it does. Yeah, right.
Hope: 01:01:23 You gotta do it right. And so, I’m just enamored with the tools that you would have at your disposal and the techniques that you would use and the help that you would have. It just seems like the ultimate experiment to me maybe, somehow.
Alan: 01:01:36 I love that answer.
Hope: 01:01:37 So, that’s my honest answer.
Alan: 01:01:38 Number two.
Hope: 01:01:39 It’s not very, it’s a little twisted, but …
Alan: 01:01:55 What do you wish other people understood about you?
Hope: 01:01:55 Me? That there’s nothing special about me, really. I mean, people always, you know, they talk about what is your best argument for encouraging people to be scientists? And I always think, well obviously it’s the fact that I can do it. I mean honestly, I really honestly feel like if I can do this, anybody can do it. So, let’s do it.
Alan: 01:02:17 Okay. Number three. What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Hope: 01:02:24 Wow. I get strange questions every day. People ask me why I didn’t marry Bill, like a few times a day I get that.
Alan: 01:02:37 Your coworker in the lab-
Hope: 01:02:38 Yeah. Yeah.
Alan: 01:02:38 Who you said is your best friend.
Hope: 01:02:41 Yeah in the book. Yeah in the book. And-
Alan: 01:02:44 Now why is that a strange question, because you’re with him all day-
Hope: 01:02:46 Because it never-
Alan: 01:02:46 Every day.
Hope: 01:02:46 It never occurred to either one of us in all these years. It just never went through our mind, for whatever reason, I don’t care if you think that’s weird or bad or mean or whatever, but, you know, just there is a place in the world for men and women to live as brother and sister. And, we don’t find it enough, and it’s one thing I am so, so very grateful I have had in my life.
Alan: 01:03:13 Okay. Next question. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Hope: 01:03:17 Oh wow. Don’t go into academia.
Hope: 01:03:29 I deal with a lot of compulsive talkers, I then generally just think, I use the time to think about other things.
Alan: 01:03:36 That’s right, so you just stand there but you don’t listen.
Hope: 01:03:40 Well, I mean you can multi, you know, especially if they’re telling you something they’ve told you before. It’s actually a nice little me time you can take and think about what you need to buy at the store and stuff.
Alan: 01:03:49 You know, how about this? We’ve talked about your empathy with plants and how you encourage us to have some, so in the context of empathy being … And understanding of the other person’s point of view, is there anyone you just can’t feel empathy for?
Hope: 01:04:11 A person?
Alan: 01:04:12 Yeah. Or a type of person.
Hope: 01:04:15 I don’t know that many people. I mean that’s, that’s been one of the funny things about this book, is people will ask me to give talks, and I always wanna be like, “Did you miss the part in the book where it was just me and a couple of people in a closed room for like 25 years?” I’m happy like that, I’m not a gregarious person. I mean I love to talk about, I love to share, but I’m not particularly gregarious.
Alan: 01:04:43 So do you find it generally easy to consider the point of view of another person or is it easier for you to think about a plant’s point of view?
Hope: 01:04:52 Oh, definitely plants are much easier to figure out. Definitely.
Alan: 01:04:56 These are some of the most interesting answers that I’ve heard to these questions.
Hope: 01:05:00 Definitely. Definitely.
Alan: 01:05:02 Okay. How do you like to deliver bad news? In person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Hope: 01:05:09 Bad news?
Alan: 01:05:10 Yeah, bad news.
Hope: 01:05:14 In person, absolutely. I’m very, you know how some people are conflict diverse, I’m conflict-philic.
Alan: 01:05:24 Conflictophilia. Right, right.
Hope: 01:05:24 I don’t know. But, I often think, yeah I got that from my mother. You know, she’s a tough piece of woman and conflict is sometimes necessary and it clears the air and it moves you on to the next important thing.
Alan: 01:05:43 Okay. Last question. What, if anything would make you end a friendship?
Hope: 01:05:56 Being overloaded with tasks that don’t allow me to communicate with the people I love. I mean that’s the tragedy of success, is that if you don’t watch it, all of a sudden you’re interacting with all these people instead of the people you love. And, I think that’s, that’s what I fear, is that I’ll lose, you know, there’s nothing sweeter than somebody who knew you from kindergarten. And, I just, it doesn’t matter if I miss all the seminars and speaking engagements in the world, I refuse to give those up.
Alan: 01:06:37 Well, it may be hard to take, but I bet you’ve made millions of friends that you didn’t know were going to be friends. People who feel about you that they know something about you in an intimate, personal way. Because your writing is so invitational to that stance, and I hope it’s not a burden for you because-
Hope: 01:06:58 It is, ’cause I know-
Alan: 01:06:58 A lot of people will feel they know you.
Hope: 01:06:59 I know those people wouldn’t like me nearly as much as they actually knew me. So, I sort of feel like I’ve missed-
Alan: 01:07:04 Well first of all you’re not tall enough.
Hope: 01:07:06 It’s true. It’s true. But I love people, you know, I hear, I get so many letters about the book and each one is a joy to receive.
Alan: 01:07:14 Oh, that’s great.
Hope: 01:07:14 And it’s such a gift to hear that, it meant something to somebody, and so, that has opened me up to other people in ways that have, I never expected and have been such a joy.
Alan: 01:07:25 Well thanks so much for being here today. I really had a good time talking with you.
Hope: 01:07:29 Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure.
Alan: 01:07:30 Thank you.

This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

My thanks the sponsors of this episode. All the income from the ads you hear go to the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Just by listening to this podcast, you’re contributing to the better communication of science. So, thank you.

For more information about the Alda Center, please visit AldaCenter.org

Hope Jahren is a uniquely talented science communicator. She has a beautiful way of explaining her science without using words like “stable isotope biogeochemistry,” which is what her lab at the University of Oslo specializes in researching. She’s confident with her language and comfortable with who she is … and this shows in the quality of her writing, research, and relatable nature.

Hope is the author of the best-selling book, “Lab Girl,” which is published by Penguin-Random House and available at most retailers and online.

Hope is also an advocate for removing the stereotypes surrounding women and girls in the STEM fields and she
has written compellingly about the sexual harassment of women in science. Hope spoke to us more about this, especially her recommendation that people draw strong professional boundaries and that they carefully document what occurs, beginning with the first occasion of harassment. We were so taken with Hope’s comments that we’re going to dedicate a whole episode to the topic in season 5. So, keep listening to this podcast for more from Hope and other leading female scientists about this important issue.

To find out more about Hope and her lab at the University of Oslo, please visit: JahrenLab.com (that’s Jahren – J A H R E N)

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

You can subscribe to our podcast for free at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen.

For more details about Clear + Vivid, and to sign up for my newsletter, please visit alanalada.com.

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Thanks for listening. Bye bye!