Nah, really they’re jellyfish. But as Juli Berwald points out in her book/memoir on jellyfish – Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone – most people really associate only three things with jellyfish: (1) getting stung/not being able to swim in the ocean due to likelihood of getting stung, (2) damage to power plants, and (3) impeding fisheries. Okay, if you, like me, are not affiliated with power plants or fisheries, probably you were just thinking about number 1. But the broader point is, there are a lot of people that think jellyfish are the mosquitos of the sea — annoying, with no purpose.


Jellyfish turn out to have many interesting qualities (although they probably kill more people than sharks each year, they aren’t responsible for spreading malaria so, some species are dangerous, but many are just cool). My takeaways were mostly that you can (and many people do) eat jellyfish and that they are an amazing source of protein. I told a lot of people about eating jellyfish while I was reading this book, and I would say that none of them believed me, or no one wanted to eat any jellyfish. And I can’t say I blame them, because part of preparing jellyfish to be eaten involves alum — which, while it is in many things (probably you’re absorbing some into your body via your deodorant) it not exactly known to be safe for humans and may increase your risk of certain cancers and Alzheimer’s. So yeah, maybe make sure if you’re consuming jellyfish that you know it was prepared properly.

Jellyfish, beyond being edible, have many fascinating research applications — you can use bioluminescence to study when genes are turning off and on in other animals, and jellyfish may also hold the key to reversing hearing loss.  I am the wrong person to explain any of the research applications, but if you’re interested and not up to reading the scientific papers, or looking for an easier entry point, Berwald’s book does explain in some detail.

Berwald’s book was also a lot like Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, in that it’s not just a book about jellyfish, it’s also a book about a woman in science. Berwald, unlike Jahren, didn’t pursue the academia route – she has a PhD in ocean science, but she became a science writer/editor/journalist so she’s writing as a woman who, as many do, opted out. Unlike Jahren, I identified with Berwald tremendously — she relates a turning point in her earlier life when she was on a plane that had to make an emergency landing where she prayed (to the moon): “Please. Please let me live. I am not done yet. I have more to do.” This is pretty much verbatim what I think every single time my plane hits turbulence (she also accepts fortune cookies as signs, which I think just makes me and her that save them and take them much more seriously than intended, at least, when they’re telling you what you already want to do…). So this story is also about her, kind of in middle age, thinking about where she’s come from and where she wants to go. She does at one point really think about how she got where she was going, and realizes that every thing she’s written down was a low point in her life, because it’s in those low points of your life that you’re brave enough to make changes — when you’re comfortable, you don’t make the changes you might need to make:

To break up with a destructive boyfriend. To change my career. To change it again. To move from a toxic city. To choose the right person to marry. The low points- not the moments of joy- were the decisive moments in my life.

Man, I hope she’s right.

The story is also about more than jellyfish and more than Berwald because the story she’s telling about jellyfish is also about climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, overpopulation, over-development of coastlines. A lighter moment comes when another scientist shows her a clip of George Carlin’s take on this — his basic view, we don’t need to worry about earth “The planet isn’t going anywhere…. We are. Pack your bags.” And, honestly, this is how I comfort myself sometimes — the earth has been through a lot of crazy changes, I think it will go on after we’re gone, and that in 65 million years or so, it’s going to be as different as the time of dinosaurs is from today. I just don’t think humans will be around to see that.

Currently reading: The Ten Year Nap and Why We Sleep