My review of Lab Girl for the LA Review of Books

How should I illustrate a review of Lab Girl? Let's go with a cool plant. This is bunchberry, Cornus canadensis (Flickr: jbyoder)

How should I illustrate a review of Lab Girl? Let’s go with a cool plant. This is bunchberry, Cornus canadensis. (Flickr: jbyoder)

You have surely, by now, heard all about Hope Jahren’s terrific scientific memoir Lab Girl, including as one of my “bookshelf” recommendations for Chronicle Vitae. My full-length review of Lab Girl is now online at the LA Review of Books, and it is, as you might expect, very positive — Jahren writes beautifully about the process of scientific discovery and the daily miracles of the natural world. As a postdoc still scrabbling for purchase on the lower rungs of the tenure track, though, Lab Girl managed to simultaneously tweak my anxieties and give me hope:

The world is heating up, and it often seems that the intellectual luxuries afforded to scientists of the past — Darwin’s leisurely publication schedule, Haldane’s dalliances with radical politics — are gone. Lab Girl’s rendition of the daily institutional frustrations of research marks it as a different kind of scientific memoir — but also as a product of twenty-first century science. If you navigate among scientists’ blogs or scroll through their Twitter feeds, you’ll quickly find the same fears and vexations and injustices Jahren describes, intertwined with accounts of the work that excites scientists’ passions. … Jahren does not makes science look like an easy career choice, but it isn’t her job to do so — and if Lab Girl chronicles the real and substantial barriers to becoming a successful scientist, it also makes that life compelling: she shows the fruit that can still grow from the rocky soil of a research career.

I do hope you’ll read the whole review, and pick up a copy of Lab Girl if you somehow haven’t already.

Minnesota winter as a series of cinematic genres

Image via.

(Update: Cross-posted.)

First snowfall: Romantic comedy. You meet cute when you feel the first flakes against your cheek. The fresh snow cover makes everything look new and crisp and innocent. You take a long evening walk through the park, watching the falling snow dance in the light of the street lamps. You stop to make snow angels. There is a snowball fight, but afterwards everyone is still friendly. Towards the end, adorable children come out to play.

The cold snap: Heist. Going outdoors requires careful planning, and if you don’t have the right equipment, things could go pear-shaped in an instant. You have many of your most important conversations over the phone—or via Skype, if you want to look particularly tech-savvy. If you’re going to take I-94, you’ll need a really good driver.

White Christmas: Disney animated musical. Fresh snow arrives just in time to accessorize the family photo on the front porch. Everything is covered in tinsel and blinking lights. Your trip to the drugstore to buy cough syrup has a twinkly soundtrack. People you meet on the street are jolly, but there is a sneaking sense that they’re just trying to fulfill expectations.

The blizzard: Mumblecore independent drama. The cold has numbed even your memories of summer. Everyone wears layers of flannel and threadbare sweaters, and many of your friends have taken up knitting just to make more insulation. You drink flat, tasteless Grain Belt because you can’t bear the thought of shoveling off the car again to go get something better. You have long, elliptical, monotone conversations with the houseguests who are trapped in your apartment after the sun goes down at 4:30.

The thaw: Film noir. Everything seems to change when a high-pressure system from the south waltzes in and asks if you know when it’ll be the right time to plant tomatoes. You prowl the slushy back alleys of the Warehouse District, searching for a glimpse of dry pavement. Two-story-tall piles of accumulated snow peppered with gravel and cigarette butts loom over empty, ice-covered parking lots. You think you see a crocus poking up through the snow—but forget it, Jake, it’s still only March.

The April snow storm: Adam Sandler farce. Ten inches of wet, heavy snow fall overnight with an almost audible thump. It looks shiny and new, but rapidly develops the familiar gray shading of slush. People get splashed in embarrassing ways. There is laughter, but it has a desperate, mean-spirited edge. It lasts about fifty percent longer than anyone really wants it to.◼

2013 Twin Cities Marathon, in photos

2013.10.06 - Balloon Arch Photo by jby.

So, that marathon I ran this morning? Went pretty damn well. My official time is 3 hours 19 minutes 55 seconds, which is a personal record marathon time—by about ten minutes! I attribute this to (1) spectacular autumnal weather—clear, cool, and perfect for running; (2) some half-arsed attempts at speed training I did over the winter; and (3) actually paying attention to my pacing, instead of my usual marathon strategy of just running as fast as I can until I end up barely able to walk the last mile.

I didn’t do much tweeting from the course, but I did take a bunch of photos—the camera on my new iPhone is a lot better than my old one. So here they are, with a reconstructed transcript of my internal dialogue:

“The best thing about a marathon in my hometown is, I can walk to the starting line. It was near the Metrodome. And the weather’s nice and clear! But, eek, I only have about 25 minutes to stand in the porta-potty line …”

2013.10.06 - Metrodome Photo by jby.

“Whew. All set. Time to head to the start line.”

2013.10.06 - Headed to the starting line Photo by jby.

“And we’re off! Next stop, Saint Paul.”

2013.10.06 - And we're off! Photo by jby.

“Yay, marathons! Here’s Hennepin Avenue. I’m going to see Wicked in a couple weeks!”

2013.10.06 - South on Hennepin Photo by jby.

“And here’s the Basilica.”

2013.10.06 - Basilica I Photo by jby.

“I’m a sucker for Baroque architecture.”

2013.10.06 - Basilica II Photo by jby.

“Ooh, the Walker Art Museum.”

2013.10.06 - Walker Art Museum Photo by jby.

“And now we’re at the lakes! This is just like my usual Sunday runs.”

2013.10.06 - Lakeside I Photo by jby.

“There’s the skyline across Lake Calhoun.”

2013.10.06 - Lake Calhoun Photo by jby.

“And now the trails around Lake Harriet.”

2013.10.06 - Lake Harriet Photo by jby.

“Is this Minnehaha Parkway? I’ve never run here before.”

2013.10.06 - Parkway Photo by jby.

“Balloon arch!”

2013.10.06 - Balloon Arch Photo by jby.

“Almost to the halfway mark. Whew.”

2013.10.06 - Almost halfway! Photo by jby.

“Oof. Sixteen miles in two hours. I’m right on pace.”

2013.10.06 - Mile 16 Photo by jby.

“Crossing the Franklin Avenue Bridge. I’ve done this hundreds of times before … but it hurts a lot more this time.”

2013.10.06 - Franklin Avenue Bridge Photo by jby.

“Gee, thanks for the reminder, sponsor I’ve never heard of. Six miles to go, mostly uphill.”

2013.10.06 - Gee, thanks. Photo by jby.

[Five and a half miles of incoherence and pain. Otherwise known as Summit Avenue.]

“Finally, the cathedral. All downhill from here. Ow.”

2013.10.06 - Cathedral Photo by jby.

“I can see the State Capitol!”

2013.10.06 - Final stretch Photo by jby.

“Getting closer …”

2013.10.06 - Finish line in sight Photo by jby.

“The finish line! Does that clock really say 3:20?”

2013.10.06 - Crossing the finish Photo by jby.

“Ow. Owowowowow. Now where’s the chicken broth table?”

2013.10.06 - State Capitol Photo by jby.

“Of course they make me climb a staircase to get to the bus back to Minneapolis. Ow.”

2013.10.06 - Finish line festival I Photo by jby.

And that’s the lot. Next year, I’m going to have to do a marathon out of state for a change. Maybe Chicago?◼

Marathoning, yet again

Tomorrow morning I’m running the Twin Cities Marathon—a mere two and a half years, and three other marathons, after I moved to the Twin Cities. What can I say? Scheduling is tricky.

I’ll be bringing my phone, so there may be live-tweeted photos if I’m feeling comfortable enough for that. Certainly the forecast—cool and cloudy but not actually raining—is perfect weather for both a very long run and for nice photos of the prettiest parts [PDF] of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. But I’m really hoping to crack my current time record of about 3 hours 30 minutes, so the only mid-race updates may be the ones available via the marathon website.

In the meantime, I have one last very short run to go do, to keep the ol’ joints loose.◼


IMG_6311 The dome of the Minnesota State Capitol. Photo by ckschleg.

Almost exactly six months after the election in which Minnesotans decided they didn’t want their state constitution to ban the legal recognition of same-sex relationships, their elected representatives provided that very recognition.

Last Thursday the state House passed a bill allowing the state to recognize same-sex couples in all the same ways it recognizes straight couples; today the Senate passed it, too; and tomorrow Governor Dayton will sign it into law. It’s almost exactly two years since another bunch of state legislators passed bills to amend the state constitution with a ban on same-sex marriage—which makes this some kind of record turn-around.

Of course, that turnaround happened because those two years contained an uprecedented campaign against the amendment by Minnesotans United for All Families leading up to a huge get-out-the-vote effort on election day that, incidentally, also saw the Democratic Farm Labor party take control of both houses of the state legislature. Almost immediately after the election, MNUnited moved to take advantage of the new, friendlier state government, re-tooling into a lobbying effort for the legislative measures that just passed.

I wasn’t anywhere near as closely involved in that new effort as I was in the campaign against the amendment—I made a couple donations, but otherwise stayed home and kept an eye on the news. This time round the action was in lobbying legislators, and I’d already helped get the out the votes to win DFL control of the legislature, and both my state rep and my state senator were co-sponsors on the House and Senate versions of the bill. Once again, a bunch of distant strangers were voting on the fullness of my citizenship—only this time the group of strangers was smaller, we already knew how most of them would vote, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of use calling up representatives and senators on whom I had no electoral claim. But the folks who did the work behind the scenes—and the folks who did call legislators and show up to rallies at the state capitol and generally keep up the pressure once the bills had been introduced into committee—made it happen.

This is far from the end of the struggle to achieve full equality before the law for all queer Americans—notably, there are 38 other states and at least one big Supreme Court decision to go, just on the single issue of civil marriage.

But it’s a mighty big step for the state of Minnesota—and it feels like we might just be riding the historical moment of inflection for the rest of the nation.

Edited to add: here, via the Minnesota Public Radio YouTube channel (with hat-tip to Joe My God), is what things looked like in the Capitol rotunda after the Senate’s vote today:

Because, duh.