With ‘Spineless,’ Austin author explores both her past and jellyfish

Consider, if you will, the humble jellyfish.

It’s a creature both 95 percent water and often possessed of one of the planet’s deadliest venoms. A creature that has existed in its current form, more or less, for millions of years, yet is one of the planet’s most delicate. In some languages, jellyfish translates as “living water” — how cool is that?

And yet, we don’t know much about them.

“The science around jellyfish is still very unsettled,” Austin science writer Juli Berwald says. We’re discussing her book “Spineless: The Science of the Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone.”

Not only is it unsettled, but a lot of how and what we think about jellyfish hasn’t moved all that much in the recent past — or the not-so-recent past, to be honest. Frankly, it’s just easier to study other things.

“Jellyfish were very interesting to science at the turn of the 20th century, when people would go out on sailboats and dip nets in the water,” Berwald says.

But as research ships got bigger and faster, nets got deeper and satellite photography became a reality, the scientific community moved away from jellyfish.

“We suddenly had the ability in the 20th century to sample the entire ocean for the first time,” she says. “Suddenly jellyfish became shoved over into a dusty corner of marine biology.”

For Berwald, jellyfish are a good example of “all the cool stuff you bias yourself away from, sometimes without even realizing it.”

Berwald offers another example. “The toxins in the jellyfish venom, among the fiercest on Earth, are only just starting to be studied,” she says. “How could we, as a species, not have studied already this thing that can kill you in three minutes? I think it’s because we just haven’t been paying attention.”

The jellyfish stuff in “Spineless”— with its great reporting from various exploratory trips and labs and conferences — is compelling on its own. Berwald makes a solid case that jellyfish are a great example of the extent to which we still have a very limited knowledge of long-term human effects on the ocean.

These creatures are a crucial hunk of the oceanic food chain for dozens of species, but we still have a very limited understanding of how their populations boom and bust.

Especially boom. In “Spineless,” we learn that, for an animal that is so delicate individually that keeping them alive as a pet is a dicey proposition — (spoiler from Berwald: “They don’t really belong in a home aquarium; it’s not for the dabbler”) — they can be earthshakingly powerful in large numbers.

Jellyfish blooms can disrupt power plants and crowd out other sea life within a region. And the science is still exceptionally unclear about how these creatures work at all.

It’s Berwald’s reflections on her own career arc that make this more than just another well-written book of popular science. She writes at length about getting her doctoral degree in ocean science only to end up married in extremely landlocked Austin, “raising kids and doing Central Texas things,” she says.

“I really got into a rhythm of writing that included my own experiences,” she says. “That was not initially how I thought the book was going to come out. I found that the way I could write a science book for people who don’t read about science, which is something I really wanted to do, was to put myself into it.”

Years ago, Berwald was working as a textbook writer in her post-academic life when it dawned on her that she was learning how to write about complicated topics in very small spaces. “It was really good training for this book, actually,” she says. “In ‘Spineless,’ I wanted to be as simple and clear as I could.”

After writing captions for a National Geographic story on ocean acidification and the extent to which jellyfish are able to thrive as carbonic acid permeates the oceans, Berwald dived into the scientific literature to find out more.

“I found that there was this amazing debate about what was happening to jellyfish in today’s seas,” she says. Many folks were saying their numbers were increasing; other were saying they cannot tell. Berwald was hooked.

Like her geologist-hobbyist father, who was into dragging his kids on trips to look at and collect rocks, Berwald started taking her family on jellyfish-centric trips. Her children retain only a limited interest in the topic of jellyfish.

“It becomes like this little secret,” Berwald says with a laugh. “You talk to your kids about the stuff you find fascinating, they don’t care, and you’re like, ‘Well, if you don’t want to know about my jellyfish, which I think are supercool, too bad for you.’”

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