‘The Soul of an Octopus’ opens up a whole new world

By Ande Jacobson

Naturalist, Sy Montgomery, opens up a fascinating world that is foreign to most of us in her 2015, best-selling memoir, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. She tells her story of how she was introduced to her first octopus at the New England Aquarium in Boston, MA and was hooked. She was taken with their curious nature, their intelligence, their cunning, and their charisma. The book is her personal tribute to all that is the octopus as she educates her readers by dispelling many misconceptions and fears and bringing these extraordinary creatures to life on the page. The first thing she teaches readers is that the scientifically correct plural for octopus, contrary to common belief, is not the Latin “octopi.” The word octopus is derived from the Greek, oktṓpous, so the plural is instead “octopuses” despite what Dictionary.com may imply. She also gives an initial description of the animal thusly:

“Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin.”

Through her years working with the folks at the New England Aquarium, she joined an inner circle of staff and volunteers in getting to know a succession of octopuses. Behind the scenes, she was able to interact directly with these magnificent animals, letting them get to know her as she did them, and when she was with them, she felt time stand still. Each had its own unique personality. Some were game players. Others were downright cuddly in a slimy, octopus kind of way. And all of the octopuses she met there over time become dear friends as she, along with the octopus experts in the inner circle, plunged their arms into freezing water to let each octopus taste them with their suckers and get to know them.

An octopus is effectively a very dexterous snail without a shell, although it is far more capable and wily than a snail. Through many examples, Montgomery shows just how smart these creatures so alien to land dwellers actually are. She notes that as she watches them, they watch her with just as much fascination. Unlike mammals, octopuses have decentralized nervous systems that allow their arms to act independently without direct commands from their brain, a point that Montgomery drives home describing how one particular octopus stole a bucket of fish unnoticed while actively interacting with three people simultaneously. An octopus can also regenerate their arms if they get bitten off by a predator.

The key to determining the sex of a given octopus is to examine the tip of their third right arm. In females, their suckers extend to the tip of all of their arms. In males, the suckers do not extend all the way to the tip of their third right arm, known as the hectocotylized arm. While it would seem an easy task to identify the sex of an octopus, the animals often keep the tips of their arms curled, so it can take some time before the crucial arm tip is visible, even for those handling the octopuses directly. Montgomery provides a detailed look at how octopuses reproduce through her description of the Seattle Aquarium’s Annual Blind Date.

On Valentine’s Day each year, the Seattle Aquarium brings a pair of Giant Pacific Octopuses together to give them an opportunity to mate. The pair doesn’t always get along, but often they do, and the day brings a very large audience to observe. Montgomery documents one such event when she got the opportunity to fly across the country to attend the blind date several years into her study of octopuses.

Most octopus species are loners, only coming together at the end of their lives to mate. A female can lay up to 100,000 eggs, each the size and appearance of a grain of rice. The last undertaking of a female octopus is often laying and meticulously caring for those eggs until just before they hatch. Very few newly hatched octopuses survive to adulthood as the young are left to fend for themselves, their mother dying just before they emerge, and their father nowhere to be found. When they first hatch, they float amidst the plankton until they grow big enough to swim to the bottom of the sea to find a den, evade predators, and to hunt for their own food. If they do survive, octopuses are very short-lived; the Giant Pacific Octopus being the longest lived species lasts only 3-5 years.

Montgomery tells her story of her introduction to, and certification in, scuba diving. She describes her difficult start to her dive lessons and provides a detailed look into the dangers of the sport recounting not only her own experience, but also that of one of the close friends she made in Boston who was injured so badly he could no longer dive at all. She was determined to dive and after being certified, was invited to accompany some research teams on a couple of very eye opening expeditions around the world. Although focused on octopus behavior, she was also exposed to a whole new world in the wilds of the oceans off Mexico and French Polynesia. Oceans cover more than 70% of the planet, and there are far more animal species in the oceans than on land. Many aquatic animals can only be observed through dives, and others live so deep in the ocean that they have never been observed by humans.

It took Montgomery several years to complete her research for this book, and over that time, she came to know a few individual octopuses at the New England Aquarium. Because octopuses will often eat one another, the aquarium can only have one in their main public display tank, and as that octopus ages, they’ll acquire another younger octopus that they keep behind the scenes in a barrel type arrangement until the old octopus dies. Montgomery describes a few of the mishaps they had over the years with their octopuses. Unlike most of the aquatic animals cared for at the aquarium, octopuses are serious escape artists. Between their curiosity, intelligence, and dexterity, it’s a real challenge to create a truly escape-proof tank. They can hide in very small spaces, and if they do get out, they can actually run across the floor for a brief period. They can live outside of water for just under 30 minutes before they suffocate.

The book is a loving adventure story providing an inside look at these incredible creatures and is well worth a read. The writing is a little colloquial at times, and there are a few editorial errors, but the story is compelling and hard to put down.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

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A World Without Lies

By Ande Jacobson

As happened most nights, Alex and Rowan Jeffries were having an impassioned discussion over dinner. The twins had been sharing a house for most of their lives, Alex a professor of biochemistry and Rowan a professor of music and religious studies at the same university. Having grown up together and only living separately as university students because they attended different schools in different states, it was both comforting and financially practical to have come together again once their student days were over. Neither had ever been married, and they considered one another perfect roommates. They relied on each other and were the best of friends even though they had a few notable philosophical differences. In fact, those differences often helped them, though they really only differed dramatically in a few areas. In other areas of their lives, they were often in agreement even when their approaches sometimes diverged. This evening, they were engrossed in a discussion in which they agreed for the most part, but differed in application. The subject this evening was honesty, or more directly, the value of truth and dangers of lies.

“We agree that lies should be avoided as they cause great harm,” said Alex.

“You’ll get no disagreement from me,” responded Rowan.

“So explain to me why the so-called social contract has been corrupted from its original intent to foster cooperation based on an agreed upon set of rules of moral and ethical conduct that allow people to live together in a society. Instead, it has become something that not only promotes lies, it penalizes people if they don’t lie if what they need or want to say ‘might’ make somebody uncomfortable even if it is entirely accurate,” said Alex.

“Argh,” sighed Rowan furrowing his brow. “You’re getting hung up on the niceties of social interaction again.” Continue reading

My magical, musical journey: Part 8 – Nostalgia

By Ande Jacobson

Earlier in this series, I talked about how my parents inspired me and encouraged my love of music. They are both long gone now, Dad for over 50 years and Mom for a decade, but every time I play anything, I think of them. In the last installment discussing whether I was still a musician or not, I came to the conclusion that even without performing for others, I am and always will be a musician. The pandemic has pushed me to enjoy my music more privately, and in doing so, return to my roots and my first instrument, the piano. Playing the piano reminds me of my mother, especially when I play some of the repertoire that she played frequently. One of her favorites was Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude. Mom used to play this one with deep expression and early on told me the story her piano teacher told her about the piece. Her favorite teacher used to tell her stories about every piece she was assigned, and in doing so made the music come alive as much more than mere notes on the page. Continue reading

Something’s coming to Sunnyvale very soon

By Ande Jacobson

As Stephen Sondheim wrote back in 1957,

“Could it be? Yes it could.
Something’s coming, something good.”

And his work is coming to Sunnyvale Community Players (SCP) on September 11, 2021 and running through October 3, 2021.

After over 18 months, SCP is returning to its home at the Sunnyvale Community Theater, live, to present a work as relevant and timely today as it was when it first opened on Broadway in 1957. West Side Story is a story of forbidden love and the need for acceptance amidst societal turmoil. This musical with its classic score by the incomparable Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, and choreography by Jerome Robbins is a challenging undertaking for any theater company. It’s a big show in every sense of the word, and the SCP cast is 35 strong supported by a live, 20-piece orchestra. The material is technically challenging and emotionally charged, and everyone is ready and eager to perform this exciting work for live audiences. Continue reading

‘Why We Sleep’ shows that sleep makes us smarter and healthier

By Ande Jacobson

Matthew Walker, PhD is a world renowned sleep researcher who shares some astonishing, well-kept secrets in his 2017 New York Times Bestseller, Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power Of Sleep And Dreams. In this fascinating book, Walker starts with the basics such as what sleep actually is, how widespread sleep is in the animal kingdom, and why it is needed. He goes on to explain what the various stages of sleep do for us and what happens when they are missed. He closes with an enlightening discussion of how our societal norms help and harm us with respect to sleep. To accomplish this, he breaks the book into four main parts including:

  1. This Thing Called Sleep
  2. Why Should You Sleep?
  3. How and Why We Dream
  4. From Sleeping Pills to Society Transformed

He draws a startling and compelling conclusion at the end. He also provides a helpful appendix drawn from the NIH Guide to Healthy Sleep with 12 common sense tips.

Walker’s book packs insights from decades of research and over three million years of evolution into under 350 pages, and it’s worth reading every word. He is a masterful storyteller citing numerous studies and expanded material via footnotes throughout the book to support his assertions. In format, while the index is extensive, the one thing missing is a consolidated bibliography that would help readers refer back to those informative studies. Continue reading

A World With Choice Reversed

By Ande Jacobson

Alex was musing over something that had long bothered her about humankind. Humans were the only species that had the capacity to use external intervention to voluntarily control or even stop their population growth and reach a steady state either by preventing a pregnancy from happening if it was the wrong time, or freely choosing whether to take a pregnancy to term or terminate an unwanted one. Unfortunately they kept getting bogged down with in-fighting surrounding forcing people to complete pregnancies whether they wanted to or not based on religious convictions or control issues. A few years earlier, she had read a fascinating work of fiction where a mad scientist genetically engineered a virus that over the course of a single week infected every human in the world, and as a result randomly sterilized a third of the human population. He had engineered the virus to modify and become a part of the human genome so it was inheritable, but the trait only turned on about a third of the time permanently reducing the human population over subsequent generations to something more sustainable. Continue reading

The arts are alive again in the SF Bay Area

By Ande Jacobson

Since California’s reopening on 15 June 2021, the performing arts in the San Francisco Bay Area have come alive. Over the 4th of July holiday weekend, picnics were accented with live community band concerts galore. Most of these bands had very limited outdoor rehearsals to prepare, but many of the musicians have enjoyed meeting in person to play together again, and in addition to the larger concert bands, several smaller ensembles have been cautiously resuming rehearsals in person over the last several months. Continue reading

Confessions of a Trekkie

By Ande Jacobson

I was lucky. I grew up in an era when Star Trek was new. This was the original series where so many of the pressing problems of the time were solved long ago in the storylines. Although I was a little young to catch the first season in its prime time slot because it was after my bedtime, I initially saw the show when the first season summer reruns aired earlier in the evening. I loved space and the idea of space travel to explore new worlds. This was during the era of the Apollo program, and the first moon landing occurred just a little over a month after the final episode of the original Star Trek series first aired. Continue reading

‘Shylock’ explores crucial questions at Tabard

By Ande Jacobson

Tabard Theatre, in partnership with Silicon Valley Shakespeare, is exploring several important questions through their current production of Shylock, a play by Mark Leiren-Young. The playwright deftly confronts several considerations surrounding the questions of how artistic works should be presented to a modern audience. On the one hand, should audiences be shielded from that which makes them uncomfortable when imbued with current cultural sensitivities, particularly for works from another time? Should they be spoon fed the intent of a given work, or should they be allowed to come to their own conclusions? More directly, the play uses the controversial character of Shylock and questions how he should be portrayed to a modern audience or even whether a company should mount a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in the first place. Continue reading

Photo journey: South Meadow Fence Road

By Ande Jacobson

As mentioned in an earlier installment of this series, I traveled to the Washington, D.C. area frequently at one point in my career. While I was a complete weather wimp being used to a very temperate climate in the San Francisco Bay Area, I found the mid-Atlantic intriguing in a number of ways despite loathing the oppressively humid summer weather. On the other hand, I rather enjoyed the other three seasons, even winter with its bone chilling cold from time to time. The two months of the year I enjoyed most in that region were October and March. October was by far the most comfortable month. The summer humidity was gone, the days were often warm and quite comfortable, and the nights were cool and crisp. Beyond that the leaves always started changing color at that time. My previous essay in this series opened with one of my favorite scenes from the greater Gaithersburg, MD area, Lake Whetstone on a nice October day. In this essay, I return to a Montgomery Village neighborhood adjacent to the lake, but this time in March. Continue reading