Consilience of Conscience

What we learn from what we do.


By Hope Jahren, Knopf, 2016. ISBN: 9781101874936, 304 pages, US$26.95.

As an academic, a research engineer, and a committed tree hugger, I found much to like in the 2016 memoir, Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren, who is currently a geology and geophysics professor at the University of Hawaii. The book intertwines three themes that span her life and career: a love of plants, a passion for hard work, and a commitment to her friend Bill, her first and only laboratory manager.

The themes develop chronologically, beginning with Hope’s first experience as a toddler in her father’s community college physics laboratory. They mature as she tries to live up to her mother’s keen intellect and high expectations, and they reach full flower when she finds a home in the geology and soil science research laboratories at the University of Minnesota and the University of California, Berkeley. It is at Berkeley where she meets Bill and where they become engaged in a shared pursuit of new knowledge, academic excellence, and a whole lot of just plain fun.

This sense of fun pervades the book. It is fun for Hope to “explain” the intricacies of photosynthesis to undergraduates and to “think like a tree” when trying to develop research proposals probing how trees must learn to cope with global warming and rising carbon dioxide levels. And it is fun for Bill and Hope to dig a six-foot-deep hole that exposes the innermost secrets of soil.

The book is divided into three sections (“Roots and Leaves,” “Wood and Knots,” and “Flowers and Fruit”) that are each a metaphor for stages in Hope’s life and career. Unlike her first love—a blue spruce that grew outside her bedroom window—she can move on when snow and gales blow, so she charts a course as an academic research scientist that forces her to reseed her mass spectrometry laboratory three times: first at Georgia Tech, then at Johns Hopkins, and currently at the University of Hawaii. In each microclimate, she absorbs nutrients and an occasional toxin, basks in the sunshine of surprising discoveries, and even goes dormant when enduring the cold shoulders of a few colleagues and more than a few granting agencies; but ultimately she prevails.

Along her life’s trajectory, Hope learns more about herself, as we all do, and more about how to symbiotically interact with her surroundings. The lessons learned are patience, persistence, and precision, but the road to this knowledge is uneven and unmarked.

Spoiler alert: this is a thoroughly honest memoir that speaks directly to the reader on an up-close and personal level. Hope is too good a scientist and too skilled as a writer to cut corners or to prune unflattering branches from the edges of her story. Nevertheless, there is a tone of consilience that flows through her life and career—consilience in the sense that biologist Edward O. Wilson used the word: “a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws.” Thus, now successful and settled professionally, happily married with a young son, and with time to write about her journey, she can look back with a clear vision and conscience.

She reflects on the love and devotion that her parents, her mentors, her husband, Clint, and her lab partner, Bill, have showered onto her. As she mentions near the end of the book, “I used to pray to be made stronger; now I pray to be made grateful.” I certainly am grateful to her for sharing her book and her life.

In closing, as a scientist, I feel obligated to quantify my opinion of this book. Because, unlike for temperature, there is not an absolute scale for literature. I will place this book in the warm colors of the spectrum of nature writing that spans, in my experience, the writers Rachael Carson (Silent Spring) for her lyrical scientific style, Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) for her poetic description of the natural world, Roger Deakin (Wildwood: A Journal Through Trees) for his immersive love of trees and soil, Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac) for his commitment to conservation and environmental restoration, and Helen Macdonald (H Is for Hawk) for her fierce honesty in confronting all living things. I enjoyed the book very much, and I hope that you will also make its acquaintance.

— Reviewed by Richard L. Magin, University of Illinois at Chicago

Wireless Medical Systems and Algorithms: Design and Applications

Pietro Salvo and Miguel Hernandez-Silveira, Eds., CRC Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-4987-0076-4, xvi + 268 pages, US$200.

This ten-chapter text provides a sampling of discourses on the current state of the art in several areas of wireless medical system development and related algorithm developments. Five chapters cover topics in technologies and manufacturing, and five cover areas of algorithms and data processing. Twenty-eight authors were involved in these chapters; the text is one of a series edited by K. Iniewski, titled Devices, Circuits, and Systems. This text is a specialty text; therefore, a familiarity with the subject matter and acronyms is necessary to fully appreciate the content of most of the material presented.

A brief overview of the technologies and manufacturing chapters is as follows: Chapter 1 (“Advances on Technologies for Implantable Bioelectronics”) provides a quick overview of biopotential sensing and then rapidly reviews several techniques for low-noise, lowpower, multiple-signal data transmission systems. Chapter 2 (“Low-Temperature Microassembly Methods and Integration Technique for Biomedical Applications”) overviews biochip design concerns, such as interconnect considerations, materials considerations, reliability issues, encapsulation issues, and simulation software. Chapter 3 (“Lab on a Cellphone”) covers several recent and useful adaptations/ additions to smartphones to enable microscopy, blood analyses, test-strip analyses, allergen testing, and more. The seven technologies discussed (and others to be developed), with the increasing use of smartphones, will impact health care in a positive fashion. Chapter 4 (“A Wireless Intraoral Tongue–Computer Interface”) covers this unique interfacing problem and many of the design considerations that are involved in this endeavor. It is a unique area of application of technologies! Chapter 5 (“Energy-Efficient Hierarchical Wireless Sensor Networks Based on Wake-Up Receiver Usage”) gives an overview of considerations in the design of low-power consumption transmission systems for the transmission of biomedical signals.

A brief overview of the algorithms and data processing chapters is as follows. Chapter 6 (“Framework for Biomedical Algorithm Design”) types problems as classification (neural network solvable), prediction (outcome), or generic optimization (min/max) studies. Following a discussion of data types and confounders (also known as noise), four useful case studies illuminate some of the current work in, for example, arrhythmia detection. Chapter 7 (“Cooperative Data Fusion for Advanced Monitoring and Assessment in Healthcare Infrastructures”), as the title implies, looks at levels of alarm generation based on decisions regarding sensor and/or, for example, pump malfunctions in a device. Data fusion in a wound management system is used as a case example. Chapter 8 (“Energy-Efficient High Data Rate Transmitter for Biomedical Applications”) overviews various techniques (modulation and transmitter systems) for highly efficient data transmission. Chapter 9 (“Toward BCIs Out of the Lab: The Impact of Motion Artifacts on Brain–Computer Interface Performance”) is an interesting study of noise artifacts effects on the development of a brain/computer interface (BCI). Twenty-four artifacts associated with car driving were investigated for their effects on a target versus a non-target electroencephalogram classification system. Chapter 10 (“An Advanced Insulin Bolus Calculator for Type 1 Diabetes”) gives an overview of a proposed case-based reasoning smartphone system for diabetes management.

Overall, this text should be a good current reference source for readers looking at potential developments involving technologically current areas of research in wireless medical devices. Each chapter is well written, succinct, and well referenced.

— Reviewed by Paul H. King, Vanderbilt University