Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

Brimming with interesting anecdotes and intriguing facts, Spineless: the science of jellyfish and the art of growing a backbone is written in an engaging style that highlights the author’s academic background (she has a PhD in Ocean Science from USC) and her work as a textbook writer, especially when she connects obscure scientific concepts with tangible examples that most people can relate to.

Juli Berwald’s message to readers resonates in her journey from a hapless undergraduate to the discovery of her passion and fascination for jellyfish and the journey she embarks on to become an advocate for the preservation of underwater ecosystems. She details centuries of human discovery and scientific exploration of the world’s oceans while also highlighting the changes that have occurred as climate change, industrial fishing and sea transport have evolved.

In imparting this knowledge and raising awareness, Berwald also admits that there is no unique or singular solution to the changes being wrought under the oceans (and above it as well) but the urgency of her call to action is present throughout the book. She writes passionately about this subject, as can be seen from this passage:

We have reached a moment in history when we control the chemistry and biology of our planet. We are that powerful. But we are also endowed with gifts of even greater power. We have the capacity to communicate, to learn quickly, to change course, to create and re-create, to make decisions for the health of the oceans, to speak up. We can protect this stunning planet we all share if we grow a collective spine.

(Juli Berwald)

By focussing on jellyfish, Berwald provides a window through which the reader can see the need for awareness of the issues she discusses. As readers delve into the world of jellyfish and the complex ecosystems they inhabit, they will realize why jellyfish are being used by oceanologists as markers for tracking change in the oceans. One example that Berwald provides is in the jellyfish’s ability to thrive in acidic conditions. As ocean acidity increases year by year so do jellyfish populations, threatening the safe operations of nuclear power plants, of fish and plankton that are their natural and unnatural prey, as well as the safe use of beaches visited by people around the world. The impact can be devastating to many and that is the message the author wants readers to take away.

However, If that was the only message then this would be a dreadful read. It is not because Berwald has seamlessly included all sorts of interesting information about jellyfish as well. Partly from research and expert interviews, the information includes the jellyfish connection to the legend of medusa, the manner in which they reproduce and their potential powers of immortality.

Other pieces come from adventures that Berwald has embarked upon in her journey to becoming an advocate, such as trips jellyfishing along the West coast and her travels to Japan to swim with giant jellyfish. For those readers who feel up to it, there are some “try-it-at-home” adventures as well, such as having a jellyfish salad and keeping jellyfish as pets (Berwald’s attempt at the latter was unsuccessful, much to the noted dismay of her children).

There is a lot to discover in this book, and it is an easy engaging read. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in learning more about the world underwater or an interest in gaining more knowledge about the effects of climate change.

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