Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone cover
Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone
by Dr. Juli M. Berwald '89
View author page | View alumni profile
Riverhead Books; 2017; 352 pp.
Genre: Non-fiction
Category: Animals, Environment, Memoir, Science
Additional Information - Library Catalog

A former ocean scientist goes in pursuit of the slippery story of jellyfish, rediscovering her passion for marine science and the sea’s imperiled ecosystems.

Jellyfish are an enigma. They have no centralized brain, but they see and feel and react to their environment in complex ways. They look simple, yet their propulsion systems are so advanced that engineers are just learning how to mimic them. They produce some of the deadliest toxins on the planet and still remain undeniably alluring. Long ignored by science, they may be a key to ecosystem stability.

Juli Berwald’s journey into the world of jellyfish is a personal one. More than a decade ago, she left the sea and her scientific career behind to raise a family in landlocked Austin, Texas. Increasingly dire headlines drew her back to jellies, as unprecedented jellyfish blooms toppled ecosystems and collapsed the world’s most productive fisheries. What was unclear was whether these incidents were symptoms of a changing planet or part of a natural cycle.

Berwald’s desire to understand jellyfish takes her on a scientific odyssey. She travels the globe to meet the scientists who devote their careers to jellies; hitches rides on Japanese fishing boats to see giant jellyfish in the wild; raises jellyfish in her dining room; and throughout it all marvels at the complexity of these fascinating and ominous biological wonders. Gracefully blending personal memoir with crystal-clear distillations of science, Spineless reveals that jellyfish are a bellwether for the damage we’re inflicting on the climate and the oceans and a call to realize our collective responsibility for the planet we share.

Juli Berwald '89 was a math major who found the sea on a study abroad program her junior year at Amherst and then spent her senior year in the space beneath the old basketball court of the old geology building (was it called Pratt?) trying to study the biomechanics of corals in an old flow tank. She received her Ph.D. in ocean science studying what satellites see when they look at the ocean. Spineless is about the amazing ways that jellyfish, owing to their spinelessness, are supremely adapted for success in today's damaged seas. It's also about Juli growing her spine as a writer, and about our collective spinelessness toward the health of our planet.

Learn more about Spineless on Juli's website.