Juli Berwald

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Juli Berwald is our guest this week, author of  S P I N E L E S S THE SCIENCE OF JELLYFISH AND THE ART OF GROWING A BACKBONE (Riverhead Books Nov 07, 2017).

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 Juli Berwald received her Ph.D. in Ocean Science from the University of Southern California. A science textbook writer and editor, she has written for a number of publications, including The New York TimesNatureNational Geographic, and Slate.

Praise for SPINELESS

“Part travelogue, part memoir, part deep-dive (literally) into the world of jellyfish… Spineless can serve as inspiration for any of us to reclaim a creative space in the midst of family life.” —NPR
“Combining humor and passion, science textbook writer Berwald investigates the strange world the Jellyfish in this captivating and informative science memoir.”— Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Berwald’s clear, delectable prose is accessible… The book forces the reader to reconsider the future of our planet, and of our role in it. It will, at the very least, leave you with a newfound appreciation of the translucent, spineless jellies.”—Buzzfeed Books

  “Berwald blends memoir and science into a compelling read that will make you rethink everything you know about jellyfish.”—Paste Magazine

 “An unexpected and uniquely delightful biography.”—Parade

  “Berwald’s intriguing and beautiful book boasts a tentacular narrative: science writing, memoir, history, and criticism entertwined with a call to arms… Spineless is an innovative and bold offering.”—Kirkus Reviews, profile

 “Where good writing, science, and environmental studies converge… Juli Berwald, in her new memoir Spineless, shows how nature’s creatures—in this case, jellyfish—can provide information about our messed-up ecosystems, our persecuted environment, our overdeveloped landscapes, and the human condition.”—Literary Hub

“In her debut, Berwald upends these conceptions and establishes jellyfish as an animal worthy of both awe and further scientific study. Part ‘jellyfish journalism,’ part memoir, Spineless is an engrossing look at one of the ocean’s most majestic and enigmatic creatures… The book provides a comprehensive account of a blooming field of scientific inquiry… Berwald’s prose is lucid and her research is thorough and well organized, making this an enjoyable and enlightening introduction to one of our world’s lesser-understood creatures.”—The Riveter

 “Berwald offers an engrossing look at the enigmatic sea creature most easily recognised in its swimming ‘medusa’ form… A revelatory science memoir.”—BBC Culture

 “Fascinating… Readers can’t help but be swept away with enthusiasm… Full of humor and intrigue, SPINELESS is a seaworthy saga brimming with information about not only jellyfish but also about the health and future of the oceans and our planet.”—BookPage

 “An astonishingly gorgeous book…  Science enthusiasts, curious animal lovers, and those who want to educate themselves more on climate change’s effect on our oceans will find this book irresistible.”—W Magazine 

“Rather than merely reciting these facts, Berwald takes readers on a personal journey, tracing how life pulled her away from science after she earned her Ph.D. — and how jellies brought her back… As she juggles family life with interviews with the world’s leading jellyfish researchers, Berwald also documents her travels to places around the globe where jellyfish and humans intersect, such as Israel’s coral reefs and Japan’s fisheries.”—Science News

 “Berwald’s exposé of the biology beneath the curved and tentacled dome is combined with a personal odyssey as, after a decade of mothering, she returns to marine science to study jellyfish swarms in the ecologically askew regions of the world’s oceans.”—New Scientist

 “Spineless explores not only jellies’ suffering ecosystem and our responsibility to the planet but also how Berwald strengthened her own backbone.”—Real Simple

 “In this excellently timed exploration of the humble jellyfish, Berwald shares her personal journey to better understand these potential bellwethers of climate change’s effects on the oceans. Full of captivating tales of this bizarre and largely unfamiliar creature, the book sheds light on jellyfish research as it offers perspective on the jellyfish’s place on the planet—and our own.”—Publishers Weekly

 “[An] appealing combination of solid science writing, investigative journalism, and memoir… While writing this lucid, eye-opening book, the author discovered that her place was, in part, inextricably entangled with jellyfish. In this lovely exploration of the mysterious jellyfish, Berwald both entrances and sounds a warning: pay attention to the messages sent by ocean life, and act to protect their environment, and ours.”—Kirkus Reviews

 “She swam with jellies, watched how quickly they disintegrate in fishers’ nets, ate them in Japan, and kept them in a home aquarium, and as she revels in these spineless animals, she teaches us to delight in them, too.” —Booklist 

“More than a mere look at jellyfish…[Spineless] provides plenty of food for thought for those seeking to make different choices in their treatment of the environment and in their own lives.”—Library Journal

“Jellyfish have captured the imagination of today’s mass public and Juli Berwald in SPINELESS spins a tale of almost magical science and eye-opening evolutionary history in telling us why we are so darn fascinated by these globby creatures. They can swim, on their own propulsion. They can kill with alarming efficiency. They dazzle with their shapes and hues, taking their place as the eccentric beauties of our oceans. Berwald makes science a page-turner. I read the book in one sitting, as if SPINELESS were the hit summer mystery.” —Diana Nyad

“…a thoroughly delightful and entertaining new book on jellyfish…Spineless is part travelogue, part memoir, part deep-dive (literally) into the world of jellyfish, and Berwald brings a genuine sense of wonder to the topic. She is a former science textbook writer, but don’t be alarmed. Berwald puts that experience to the best possible use, deploying a range of analogies to explain complex marine science for the rest of us… Spineless can serve as inspiration for any of us to reclaim a creative space in the midst of family life. With Spineless, Berwald isn’t writing a lean-in manifesto. Instead, she’s doing something more universal, yet subtle. This is the story of looking back from a certain age and a certain place and assessing how you got there, how your life turned out the way it did, and finding peace in that—but also motivation to return to the passions of youth.”—NPR.org




Spineless is about jellyfish, and yes, jellyfish are spineless. They are gross, gooey–and they sting. But jellyfish are also positioned for success in today’s carbon-rich, polluted, overfished, and overdeveloped ocean. The message from jellyfish is that we haven’t yet taken responsibility for our impacts on our planet. A gap exists between where we are and where we are still realizing we need to be. There’s opportunity in that gap, but to cross it, we need to grow a spine. 

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 have been swimming in our oceans for well over half a billion years, longer than any other animal that lives on the planet. They make a venom so toxic it can kill a human in three minutes. Their sting—microscopic spears that pierce with five million times the acceleration of gravity—is the fastest known motion in the animal kingdom. Made of roughly 95 percent water, some jellies are barely perceptible virtuosos of disguise, while others glow with a luminescence that has revolutionized biotechnology. Yet until recently, jellyfish were largely ignored by science, and they remain among the most poorly understood of ocean dwellers.

More than a decade ago, Juli Berwald left a career in ocean science to raise a family in landlocked Austin, Texas, but jellyfish drew her back to the sea. Recent, massive blooms of billions of jellyfish have clogged power plants, decimated fisheries, and caused millions of dollars of damage. Driven by questions about how overfishing, coastal development, and climate change were contributing to a jellyfish population explosion, Juli embarked on a scientific odyssey. She traveled the globe to meet the biologists who devote their careers to jellies, hitched rides on Japanese fishing boats to see giant jellyfish in the wild, raised jellyfish in her dining room, and throughout it all marveled at the complexity of these alluring and ominous biological wonders.

Gracefully blending personal memoir with crystal-clear distillations of science, Spineless is the story of how Juli learned to navigate and ultimately embrace her ambition, her curiosity, and her passion for the natural world. She discovers that jellyfish science is more than just a quest for answers. It’s a call to realize our collective responsibility for the planet we share. —Riverhead Books

For more information, please see the author’s website.  You can also keep up with her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.