Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams is a new book on the science of squid.
I wondered at first why a popular science book would be named after a legendary creature (the Kraken) but when I read the book and also read up on The Kraken it became clear that the legend is the squid only barely disguised as myth.
Well, not all Kraken are real ….
…. but the ones seen by ancient Europeans (after all, the word “Kraken” is probably based on the word for octopus) may well have been giant squid washed up on shore, which for a long time was one of the main ways of collecting, indeed discovering, the larger deep water species.
Kraken (the book) covers not just squid but cephalopods in general. You already know that cephalopods (depending on the species) can glow in the dark, become almost perfectly camouflaged against any background, appear to be quite intelligent (in human terms, but depending on the humans you hang out with, I suppose) and are highly diverse. Also, since many of them live in the oceanic abysses new species are discovered now and then, and one gets the sense that there is a lot more to know about them.
The author is not a scientist, but rather an experienced writer who became interested in Kraken and their Kin during a Woods Hole fellowship. As a Cape Cod resident she is very familiar with squid, though primarily as calamari and for use as bait. You may know Williams from her award winning book, Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future, about NIMBY politics and Cape Cod windmills, though she’s published in Scientific American and a number of other places as well.
Kraken is full of scientists doing their work on all aspects of squid biology, evolution, and conservation, and the squid they know and love. Williams’ reconstructed dialog and stories may seem a little melodramatic, but it is quite possible that there was a fair amount of melodrama associated with giant squids washed up on beaches or various amazing laboratory discoveries that caused us to rethink how neurons work, etc. Plus, people tend to get a bit melodramatic when stuff smells bad, and that would be the case with squid washed up on shore or stored in glass sarcophagi for long periods of time.
Some readers may not like Williams approach to (and frequent attention to) squid “intelligence.” But this is not a scientific treatment of cephalopods; This is a popular book that attempts to touch on every aspect of squid science, though focusing more on some aspects than others, and in a “you are there” sort of format. At this, she does a pretty good job. Some of the book’s stories play out in times and places (The Cape and Plum Island in the 1980s, etc) where I was hanging around, which I found enjoyable. I quickly add that my squid encounters were mainly as calamari and bait.
Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid is a good addition to your popular science bookshelf, and would make excellent summer reading for anyone visiting the ocean. But if you do visit the ocean, don’t forget to wear your squid-proof goggles.