Thursday, September 22, 2011

Kraken, by Wendy Williams

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams.  Abrams Books, 2010.  223 pp.  978-0-8109-8465-3.

... in which we learn about the new frontiers in the field of squid/cephalopod science.

In Kraken, author Wendy Williams takes the reader on a tour of various research projects involving squid (and octopi, etc).  Starting out with a general discussion of the myths and cultural beliefs associated with squid, we learn a little bit about the evolutionary history of squid, and molluscs in general.  From there, Williams moves on to follow several different scientists who study different aspects of squid and their cousins.  She describes life on a squid research vessel, participates in or observes several squid dissections, explores the intricacies of the cells that allow some cephalopods to change color, and compares various parts of the squid anatomy to human anatomy. 

In general, this is an entertaining book, but not quite what I expected.  Williams has a talent for writing about science in a way that pretty much anyone can understand.  For the most part, this is a good thing, especially for those of us who haven't had a biology class since high school (ie, me).  In a few cases, she simplifies things a little too much, to the point of wasting pages in an explanation of a fairly simple concept.  Despite this, her writing is interesting and engaging and holds the reader's interest, when she stays on topic... 

The subtitle of the book, The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, is somewhat misleading, as a fair amount of the book is devoted to topics that aren't entirely squid-ish.  In some ways, the book is more about the scientists who follow the squid.  I was sort of expecting something that was a little more academic and a little less journalistic.  Williams also seems to lump an awful lot of things into the category "squid", and even when she is discussing squid, it's often in the context of "how squid are useful to humans."  For example, we have nearly an entire chapter discussing what a neuron and an axon are, and why squid provide a good research opportunity for furthering our understanding of human neurons and axons.  I would have preferred to learn about squid in a less anthropocentric way, since I think they're interesting animals in their own right, regardless of their utility.  In some places, Williams really gets hung up on the human details, whether in describing the human nervous system or in discussing why she's glad that squid sex and human sex are very different processes.  I found it sort of distracting, and in many parts, boring.   I skimmed some parts involving long descriptions of how the scientists on the boats harvested the squid, and I got a little bored reading about the science of a neuron.  The majority of the dull parts are in the second half of the book.

I would recommend this book to people interested in marine biology, but with some reservations.  If you're interested in learning about squid just for the joy of learning cool facts about squid, this might not be quite the book for you, unless you only read the first half of the book.  On the other hand, if you like learning about how humans can apply squid research to human research, then you'll probably find this to be an edifying read.  For my part, while I enjoyed the writing style and found parts of the book to be really educational, the misleading title and the meandering topics took a lot away from the book for me.

3/5 stars.

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