Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Dec 11th, 2017, 5:54 am

TITLE: Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Spine
AUTHOR: Juli Berwald
GENRE: Nonfiction, Memoir, Science
PUBLISHED: November 7, 2017


Jellyfish occupy an interesting duality in the collective consciousness. On one hand, they are ethereal ghosts of the deep, gently pulsing through abyssal waters or aquariums trailing tentacles like bridal veils of shredded lace. On the other hand, they are harbingers of environmental doom, threatening to turn the seas into wobbling goo unless something is done to stop them. It is this duality that drew Juli Berwald to them, and which eventually led her to write Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. The book is divided into five sections, named after the stages in the jellyfish life cycle: Planula, Polyp, Strobila, Ephyra, and Medusa. These life stages reflect Berwald’s own personal journey as she chronicles how she first fell in love with science, let it slip away from her in order to focus on her family, and then rediscovered her passion for it later in life.

When I picked up this book, I did so based on the idea that I would be learning about jellyfish. They are fascinating creatures, and their potential impact on the environment is timely because of how often jellyfish blooms are trotted out as an indicator of how much global warming has impacted the world’s oceans. I was hoping for up-to-date information on that issue, as well as a scientific look at jellyfish biology and ecology. Something along the lines of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, perhaps, but through the lens of jellyfish science.

However, that is not quite what this book is about. To be certain, it does have lots of interesting historical information about jellyfish:
One of the most dramatic jellyfish-induced power outages occurred on December 10, 1999, in the Philippines. The pipes that cool a massive coal-fired power plant on Luzon Island, which provides electricity to 40 million customers, slurped in a swarm of jellyfish. The city went black, and rumors of a government coup spread. Fifty dump trucks of jellyfish were hauled away from the clogged power plant pipes.

… Arguably the most embarrassing jellyfish clog took place in 2006 during the maiden voyage of the USS Ronald Reagan. The $6 billion nuclear-powered aircraft carrier made its first international port of call at Brisbane harbor in Australia. During a five-day stay, crew aboard the football field-size vessel capable of holding eighty aircraft displayed its military might for the locals by driving the planes around on the flight deck. Just when the boat was set to sail, however, a bloom of humble jellyfish was swept toward the harbor,clogging cooling systems and incapacitating the mighty warship.

The science is also here, presented in a somewhat-lighthearted manner similar to Mary Roach and Sam Kean’s work:
Scientist Anders Garm from the University of Copenhagen has been studying the eyes of a Puerto Rican box jelly called Tripedalia for over a decade. Unlike its fearsome cousins, this Caribbean native’s poison is fairly mild, which makes it a reasonable creature to study in the lab. “You have to kiss them practically to feel the sting. Then your lips go numb. Then you are fine,” Anders told me.

But despite these similarities, this book does not focus so much on history or science so much as it does on the author’s journey of discovery and rediscovery, and the author’s attempts at climate change commentary, and commentary on the scientific community as a whole. Take the following excerpt, for example:
Of the seven people in the room, only one was a man. I’d never been to a scientific meeting like that before. Do jellyfish attract more women than men? I didn’t think so. The majority of authors on the scientific papers I’d read were men. Most of the jellyfish experts I’d interviewed were men. Later I asked about the preponderance of women at the workshop. The scientists told me that it’s not unusual now for graduate student classes to be weighted towards women in the natural sciences. Often the majority of students receiving their PhDs are women. But, they added, many women leave their postdocs—the fellowships that academics need to complete before applying for university positions—for jobs outside of academia, so a disproportionate number of faculty are still men.

This is an interesting look at the gender disparity in academia, especially in science, but it is only tangentially related to jellyfish. The following excerpt is similar:
I was staring at a complete list of my bad times. The bottoms of my waves. They were times when I was lost and boxed in by circumstances out of my control. … And then I saw, looking back, that these low points were actually turning points. They were the moments that pushed me to make a change in my life. … The low points—not the moments of joy—were the decisive moments in my life. I had almost never made a change when things were going well. … It was only when things got so stressful, so difficult, or so miserable that I couldn’t stand it that I took action. I had to feel bad to fix my life.

So why would we change the way we treat the world? Why isn’t protecting our life-sustaining oceans more urgent? We haven’t yet reached a low point. Intellectually, we know there are a lot of problems, but we don’t yet feel them intensely enough.

The lead-up to the above excerpt is only very tangentially related to jellyfish; the author talks about the disappointment she felt after a scheduled trip to pursue jellyfish fell through, and the subsequent discussion she had with a novelist friend about the narrative structure of movies. While it’s still interesting (not least because, as a voracious reader and writer, anything to do with narrative structure is sure to catch my attention), it’s not exactly what I was looking for in this book.

And that, I think, is the book’s primary problem: it does not quite deliver on the promise implied by the title. To be sure, there is an attempt to fulfill the “Art of Growing a Spine” portion; the author tries to follow Kolbert’s footsteps and tackles climate change, as this excerpt shows:
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 to 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. And we can. As a jellyfish scientist told me many years ago, we are an incredible species.

However, the issue of climate change and its relationship to jellyfish is not portrayed firmly in the book’s narrative. The author does seem to aim for it throughout the course of the book and does seem to reach the conclusion that jellyfish are vital to our understanding of the changing oceans as a result of climate change, but the journey to that conclusion is tenuous. The scientists themselves are still not in agreement as to whether or not exploding jellyfish numbers are indeed a sign of a climate change-driven oceanic apocalypse, and I appreciate the author’s honesty on that particular point, but this tidbit of information ought to be the beating heart of this book. The author should shine a spotlight on that uncertainty because driving curiosity towards the subject could help inspire readers to pay more attention to jellyfish scientists and thus forward their cause. Jellyfish are important to the ocean’s ecosystems, and any changes that involve the ocean will involve them, too.

Instead of the above, however, the author puts more focus on her journey back to science. This book is not so much a scientific treatise in the same manner as Kolbert’s book, but a personal memoir of the author’s return to the discipline she left behind in favour of caring for her husband and family. Jellyfish and climate change were the topics that interested her and led her back to science, so to speak, but they are not what this book is about.

To be fair to the author, the memoir has many touching moments and is relevant to anyone who has a passion for something but chose to abandon that passion because of the realities and vagaries of life. The author shows how she was able to go back to doing what she loved when she was younger, and how important that can be for people approaching their middle years. This can be interesting, but it is not what I was expecting out of this book.

Overall, Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone is not quite what the title promises it to be. Readers who go in expecting a focus on science and climate change will quickly realise that this book is really the author’s memoir about her return to science in her middle age, and that the jellyfish and climate change are really only the subjects that led her back to her passion as opposed to the book’s primary focus. Though there is some discussion of jellyfish and their relationship to climate change, those discussions feel more tangential to the author’s exploration of her own journey back to science via those topics. The memoir is interesting (especially for readers who, like the author, are finding their own way back to the things they used to love but had to give up), but it lacks the scientific substance and heft that it needs to fulfill the promise of its title.
Dec 11th, 2017, 5:54 am