Book Review: Lab Girl

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl is a memoir, an account of Hope Jahren’s progress as a student and then a scientist working in the academy. It is interspersed with lessons on seed germination, soil properties, plant growth, life cycles, and other botany-related subjects.

Hope Jahren—her full name is Anne Hope Jahren—is a scientist and teacher who is passionate about her chosen field. Of course, that can probably be said of many academics, especially those who have channeled their passion into literature that is accessible by laypeople. This book is not only well written and accessible, though, it is laugh-out-loud funny in places.

The description on page 117 of a visit with several students to Monkey Jungle Island, a tourist attraction in Florida is an excellent example. Later in the narrative Jahren describes a cross-country trip by van to a conference in San Francisco and a terrible crash on an icy interstate highway in the mountains of Colorado. One can almost smell the interior of the van at the end of the trip, that vivid is the description.

While humor, effective instructional writing, and great storytelling move the narrative forward, it is also driven by Hope Jahren’s frustration with the deplorable state of research funding, the status of women in the sciences, and the continuing degradation of the environment.

Being a memoir, the point of Lab Girl is not to deliver a seamless account of Hope Jahren’s life. Still, it is a bit startling that there is little to describe the transition from the Hope Jahren of early struggles, who lived day and night in her lab and survived on pizza and Ensure, to the successful academic who is blissfully married to the perfect husband and hopelessly devoted to their child. It is still heartening to know that she was able to make that transition.

It’s also clear from the narrative that there would also be no Hope Jahren, successful academic, were it not for Bill Hagopian, her long-time lab assistant, good friend, confidant, and Dutch uncle. Bill should tell the story from his side.

Lab Girl would merit five stars from this reviewer were it not for one flaw, the unfettered use of profanity. It’s hard to imagine how Jahren was able to recall in detail conversations that included such language fifteen years or more after they took place unless she kept an exhaustive journal. Even if the conversations are accurately recorded, one has to wonder why it is necessary to include language that is still censored by broadcast media in the United States. It would be easy to recommend this book to grandchildren and other young people who might consider careers in the sciences, but the profanity makes that problematic.

In spite of that, this is a great memoir. The time and effort expended in reading it are well invested.

Thanks as always for stopping by!



Under Orion’s Gaze

When I left Mooney’s Garage the other day, Orion stood high in the clear southern sky. Venus was low in the east, having risen thirty minutes before. The sun would not rise for more than an hour, followed by an invisible crescent moon, so I had a clear view of Orion for most of the twenty-five minute walk home.

The constellation Orion
A photograph of Orion through a ground-based telescope.
Photo by Akira Fujii

Orion not a real person, of course. Orion is the name that has been given to a group of stars that form the image of a person, a hero from ancient mythology. Even in brightly lit Northern New Jersey, Orion is clearly visible through much of the year.

Although Orion appears as a two-dimensional image, we know that it consists of stars that are separated by great distances in three dimensions. The five stars that make up Orion’s outline are Rigel (773 light years distant), Saiph (720 light years distant), Betelgeuse (643 light years distant), Bellatrix (240 light years distant), Meissa (1,100 light years distant). The three stars in Orion’s Belt are Alnitak (700 light years distant), Alnilam (1,300 light years distant), and Mintaka (900 light years distant). These eight stars are an average of almost 800 light years away. If we were to travel 800 light years, just over halfway toward Alnilam in the center of Orion’s belt, turn in any direction, and travel 800 light years in that direction, we would not see Orion from the back, side, or top, but an entirely different two-dimensional image. Maybe dogs playing pool. Maybe nothing recognizable.

We know what we see when we look in Orion’s direction. We can even build a three-dimensional model, either physical or computer-generated, that would enable us to see what kind of image those stars would form when viewed from another part of space. But imagine Orion being able to see Earth. Think of what has he seen, especially of humanity’s sojourn here.

Orion has seen the earliest hominids stalking their prey in the savannas of eastern Africa and the Neanderthal clans coping with the rigors of alpine life. On the far northern rim of the earth he might have seen modern humans cross from Siberia into North America, then expand their territory southward as far as he could see. He has seen dynasties and empires rise and collapse. He has seen humanity adapt and cope with flood and drought, famine and plague, unbearable cold and unrelenting heat. He’s seen our worst ignorance and inhumanity and our greatest wisdom and compassion.

Orion, as we thus imagine him, has seen much and yet has stood passively at a distance. God sees all, not in our imaginations but in reality, and has done much. God spoke, and the universe came into existence. God gave that universe, and the Earth in particular, the ability to bring forth life. God placed in that Earth a form of life that could respond to God of its own free will. When that response was contrary to God’s ideal, God responded not by stepping back and watching us destroy ourselves, but by stepping in and giving us a Way in which the consequences of our contrary actions could be undone.

Astronomers tell us that Orion could gaze down on Earth for millions of years into the future. We have hope in a bright future if we can turn away from our ignorance and inhumanity and turn to the One who has walked among us in space-time and who sees us with eyes of compassion and mercy.

Thank you as always for stopping by!


Book Review: Quantum Physics and Theology

Don’t let the title frighten you. You don’t need to understand quantum physics and you don’t need to have studied theology to enjoy and appreciate Quantum Physics and Theology by John Polkinghorne. Having training or interest in the sciences or theology will enhance your appreciation, but it’s not essential.


I read this book as a part of a group reading and discussion project hosted by Andy Walsh on the Emerging Scholars Network during September and October 2017. He discussed one chapter in each of five weekly articles. There were on-line video chats as well but they were not recorded. His comments will much more valuable to potential readers than any I could add here, so I would suggest that you read his posts.

Thanks as always for stopping by!


Book Review: The Big Question

The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and GodThe Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God by Alister E. McGrath

Science has progressed to the point that it can explain the origins of the universe, life, intelligence, and even ethics and morality by exclusive recourse to natural phenomena. In so doing, science has freed intelligent beings from the tyranny of the theistic superstitions that dominated our benighted past. So say the New Atheists, at least.

Not so fast. So might Alister McGrath say, although he does not do so in those words. Science provides us with deeper knowledge and understanding of the universe and the part of it that humanity inhabits with every passing year. For that, and for so much more that scientists do we should render due recognition and appreciation. But science does not prove the nonexistence of God, just as it cannot prove God’s existence. “Science is a non-theistic, not an anti-theistic, way of engaging reality.” (page 19; emphasis in original) Science instead supports and enhances the sense of wonder and awe that humans experience as we explore and interact with the universe. Alister McGrath shares his awe and wonder with the reader. He also shares how science can come alongside theistic faith to help us come to terms with our place and purpose in the universe.

Throughout this book Alister McGrath engages with the writing of such prominent atheists as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. I have not read these authors, so I am relying on Alister McGrath to represent their arguments fairly and not to set up straw men. Similarly, I have not read Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson. I know of it and of Wilson’s arguments only through reading the response written by Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. So I have some reading to do if I am going to be completely thorough in my approach to The Big Question.

With regard to Edward O. Wilson, Alister McGrath mentions him and Sam Harris in his discussion of ethics and morality. Science and specifically evolutionary biology cannot by themselves explain the rise of ethics and moral principles. What is ethical or moral is not simply a matter of what behaviors will enable our species to survive or thrive. Notions of what constitutes ethical behavior transcend the common good and come from humanity’s interaction with a source outside of the physical universe.

When shopping for books online, readers are often able to read samples. The samples often come from the beginning of the book. It might be better in this case if the sample were the final chapter. That would reveal whether or not the butler did it, of course, but this final chapter encapsulates Alister McGrath’s thinking on the relationship between science and faith and it is worth working through the other 200+ pages to get to that summary.

If you are looking for more great reading on the subject of faith and science, why not visit Andy Walsh’s Science Corner blog on the Emerging Scholars Network.

Thanks as always for stopping by!


Painted Ladies, Hurricanes, Earthquakes

A painted lady (Vanessa cardui) stopped and visited our coneflower (echinacea purpurea) today.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings closed

This butterfly visited as fall was arriving in the northern hemisphere. Like its more well-known cousin the monarch, the painted lady doesn’t stick around for winter. It gets out of winter’s way and heads toward a warmer locale. Some butterflies, such as the mourning cloak, can winter over in the temperate zone. That’s why mourning cloaks are among the first butterflies to be sighted in the spring.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings partly open

Sometimes we can see changes or events coming and we can prepare for them or get out of their way. In the past few weeks millions of people saw storms coming and got out of way or prepared to weather the storms. In spite of their preparations, many people suffered great personal harm from the storms. In Mexico many thousands of people had no way of knowing that earthquakes were coming and also suffered great personal harm.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings open

If you are like me, you do not have the skills to help the survivors rebuild their lives. But we can give, and we can pray. Please do both as you think about creatures who are preparing now for the coming of winter.

As always, thanks for stopping by.


Is it Time to Put Hurricanes on a Diet?

We have been following hurricane news for several weeks now. Before it gets pushed out of the headlines by other events and out of our consciousness by cute animal videos or political diatribe, I thought it appropriate to do a little assessment and write out some thoughts.

Have you donated to an organization that is providing relief or recovery services in the stricken areas? If you have, good for you! If you have volunteered or will volunteer for one of those organizations, even better!. Please share your experience in the comments on this blog or on social media.

Next, have you considered the impact that climate change has had on the recent storms? That’s a little trickier to assess. Climate scientists can’t make a precise connection between a warmer climate and the characteristics or behavior of a specific storm. But they do tell us how a warmer climate can affect such storms. A warmer atmosphere, which we have, holds more moisture; storms such as Harvey can carry and deliver more rain. Warmer oceans, which we have, transfer more energy to the storm, which translates into stronger winds. We saw this in Irma.

Hurricane José graphic
Hurricane José running laps in the open ocean, 12 September 2017.

Like so much of the American population, hurricanes seem to be getting bigger. They could stand to lose a few pounds, so to speak. One solution might be to make hurricanes exercise more. As of this writing Hurricane José is running laps in the Bermuda Triangle. Let’s hope he exhausts himself before taking aim at any land mass. Inasmuch as past attempts to control the behavior of storms have failed, it seems unlikely that we will be able to do so in the near future, however.

Some changes in our diets might have a positive effect on climate change. Eating more vegetables, especially beans, instead of feeding vegetables to animals and eating the animals is one such change. If you can’t contemplate giving up meat, or even beef, altogether, may I suggest meatless Mondays or something similar? Oh, and please keep the beans-to-methane comments to yourself. Thanks.

There are limits to using vegetables as a protein source, but fish, eggs, and dairy products can help overcome those limitations while having less climate impact than red meat.

Not sold on beans as a protein source? What about crickets? Eating insects will take more of an adjustment than switching to beans, but when I shared the article on beans on social media some weeks ago, one of my connections enthused about eating barbecued mealworms.

Are you surprised that a small change that individuals can make could have an impact on the environment? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)

Next issue: food waste and climate change.

Thanks as always for stopping by.


Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See is an easy read, and it is not an easy read. The narrative moves quickly and pulls the reader along, but the details of the depravity that characters face because of Nazi madness will haunt the reader’s dreams. The characters are well developed, and we see their doubts and convictions, fear and courage, humor and anger throughout. We wonder, as Werner does of one of his comrades, what they could have become if not for the madness they endure.

Also impressive is the descriptive detail. When Etienne is obliged to surrender his collection of radios, Doerr takes pains to identify each radio. We see the streets of Saint Malo through Marie’s sightless understanding of it. How many storm drains to the corner? What creatures inhabit the grotto where Marie wades in the sea?

The nonlinear narrative requires some mental energy. We read about a circumstance or event at the chronological end of the story and we can infer from that circumstance or event the outcome of a crisis that is earlier chronologically but comes later in the text.

Some years ago I read The Sojourn, a novel set in Austria-Hungary and Italy during the first World War. I still have mental images from some of the scenes and events in that book. The same will no doubt be the case with All the Light We Cannot See.

Thanks as always for stopping by.


DeKorte Park

Labor Day 2017 was an ideal day to spend out of doors in New Jersey. We chose to spend part of the morning at Richard W. DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. The park features several trails that wind their ways through and around tidal enclosures fed and drained by Kingsland Creek and the Hackensack River. It’s a great place to see migrating birds and year-round resident wildlife. (For great information on events at DeKorte Park and other New Jersey Meadowlands sites, visit The Meadowlands Nature Blog.)

When we arrived the tide was in, so few wading birds aside from great egrets were visible. Soon after we arrived we met two photographers whose camera lenses were longer than my forearm. One of them graciously directed our view to a nearby opening in the phragmites at the water line and said that there were several least bitterns hiding there. I caught a quick glimpse of the head of one and another flew past moments later.

great egret
A great egret at De Korte Park.

We were then treated to a display by a Forster’s tern. He hovered briefly a few yards above the water, then dove in, presumably in hopes of catching a fish. I wasn’t able to photograph the acrobatics, but I did manage to photograph him while he was resting on a metal railing. Please excuse the quality of the photographs. At maximum optical zoom my camera lens is the 35-mm equivalent of about 70 mm in focal length.

Forster’s tern
A Forster’s tern. Notice the comma-shaped eye- and ear-band.

We heard but did not see several other small birds hiding in the phragmites. Two pairs of medium- to large-size wading birds (dowitchers?) flew by while we were watching the tern. We also got to see several swans, an American black duck, several goldfinches, a ruby-throated hummingbird that was being harassed by a small brown bird that we could not identify, and a couple of turtles.

The walkways and other fixtures in DeKorte Park were heavily damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. They have since been repaired or replaced and, in some cases, enhanced. Sadly, invasive phragmites have replaced much of the native flora and this undoubtedly affects the well-being of the wildlife that makes its home in the park or passes through on its migratory journey. The park staff work to keep key viewing areas clear so that folks like us can spot birds and other creatures.

The Environmental Center also has an observatory that is open to the public on Wednesday evenings from 8:00 p.m. until 10:30 p.m., weather permitting. We went one Wednesday evening in 2016 and saw Saturn, rings clearly visible, through the telescope.

DeKorte Park is adjacent to the offices of the Meadowlands Environmental Center and the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority. It’s located at the southeastern end of Valley Brook Avenue in Lyndhurst, NJ. Valley Brook Avenue turns to the right and becomes Disposal Road just before the park entrance.

The name “Disposal Road” is fitting because the offices and park are located at the southeastern edge of a large landfill that is now closed. In our less enlightened past we viewed the Meadowlands region as someplace to dump our garbage. Thankfully our governments and businesses now recognize that wetlands such as the New Jersey Meadowlands need to be preserved and protected. It’s worth a visit to understand why. Also, check out this interesting article on how wetlands mitigate damage from severe storms such as Superstorm Sandy.

Thanks as always for stopping by.


Book Review: The Benedict Option

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian NationThe Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher paints a dark picture of the state and status of American Christianity in the 21st century. It is hard to argue with his assessment. The decline and marginalization of the Church are evident, as is the secularization of American culture, even if one doesn’t accept the argument that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

Dreher’s answer to the crisis is for orthodox Christians to focus on maintaining and building up what remains through communities that focus attention inward. This is a simplification, but his answer conjures another picture, that of driving through a questionable neighborhood in the family car. Our orders are to roll up the windows and lock the doors. Don’t make eye contact with the shabby person carrying a paper cup and a hand-lettered “Homeless, Please Help” sign. Don’t look at the women in short skirts and halter tops. Don’t stare at the drunk lying on the sidewalk in a pool of his own urine.

How does an insular community deal with social justice concerns or creation care? How do we reach people who are marginalized by or excluded from the community, but who nonetheless are people for whom Christ died? What are Christians who can afford classical education or home schooling supposed to do? Where do civic engagement and involvement take place?

Honestly, these allusions to social justice issues are little more than lip service on my part. And The Benedict Option provides much to think about for someone who has drifted somewhat from the orthodox Christianity of his younger life. I would welcome a recommendation for a left-of-center approach to the decline and marginalization of Christianity that Rod Dreher so thoughtfully addresses.

Thanks as always for stopping by.


Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you have not read it and don’t want the outcome to be revealed.

This was my first conventional novel by Neil Gaiman. I had read The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a graphic novel. Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quick read and hard to put down. The themes of identity, loneliness, and alienation are fairly easy to pick up. The narrator’s being saved from death by another character who dies in the attempt is unexpected and strikes me as being close to Christian in form. In that sense Lettie is a Christ figure, although I’m not sure that’s what the author intended.

What strikes me also is a similarity between this story and the story told in Madeline L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time. In both stories we have benevolent female figures who come to the aid of a child or children in a battle between good and evil. I’d be curious to learn if anyone else reading this review might have drawn the same connection.

Thanks as always for stopping by.