Science Book A Day Interviews Katherine Harmon Courage


Special thanks to Katherine Harmon Courage for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – Octopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea

Katherine Harmon Courage is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor who has recently traded in the wilds of Brooklyn for those of Colorado. From there she works as a contributing editor for Scientific American and also writes for WIREDGourmet, Popular Science, Nature, and others. Her work ranges from breaking science news to features about food. And she has dabbled in podcasts, blogging and video along the way. – From Katherine’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for writing Octopus!? Why the “!”?

I really knew next to nothing about octopuses three years ago (I grew up in Oklahoma for gosh sakes). But while I was working as a reporter for Scientific American, I came across a study one day that described octopuses using tools in the wild. Tools?! So I looked into it and was just astounded by the findings–and the video that came with it. Researchers had observed these small octopuses collecting coconut shell halves and carrying the shells (awkwardly) around to use as makeshift shelters. After that I was hooked, so to speak. And the more I learned about these animals, the more it seemed like there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do (camouflage, pretend to be other animals, wrestle sharks, solve puzzles).

And great question about the “!” Maybe it’s starting to become apparent, but I’m just still completely bowled over by these unlikely invertebrates. I felt I had to make sure that the level of enthusiasm and excitement was conveyed immediately in the title. Also, they’re just wacky animals. So I think that, if understanding the nuances of punctuation turns out to be something they’re also capable of, they would appreciate it as well.

#2 – How did octopuses come to evolve so differently to humans? What does their form tell us about their history?

The evolutionary tale of the octopus is still somewhat mysterious. (Being entirely soft-bodied, they don’t fossilize very well.) We think that our last common ancestor with the octopus was probably a sightless marine worm that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. That said, there are some amazing similarities between humans and the octopus. We both have lens-based eyes, closed circulatory systems, and although the octopus has essentially infinitely flexible arms, it often fashions them into stiff segments with three joints–much like our own arms. We also both like to eat bivalves.

#3 – Much has been written in recent years about the intelligence of these creatures. How intelligent are they?

Finding an answer to that question has so far been limited by our own intelligence. We’re just starting to get an inkling of how smart these animals really are–and how their intelligence and perception of the world (conception of themselves) may be so vastly different from our own. We do know that they can use tools, solve puzzles, open child-proof jars and learn (and remember) mazes. But two thirds of their neurons are in their arms. So how does that change how the octopus navigates–and thinks about–the world? We’re still trying to figure that out.

#4 – How did you find the challenge of writing a book compared to your regular blog? Was it different?

I guess I did things a little backward there. The blog actually grew out of the book. I researched and wrote the book on evenings and weekends while I was working full time as an editor at Scientific American (I had just nine crazy months to do everything!). But as soon as I turned my manuscript in, I realized that there was no way I could just quit the octopus cold turkey. And fascinating new work was coming out about these animals all the time. So the blog was a way to keep learning–and sharing–about the octopus.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects that you can tell us about?

I have been super busy with some fascinating writing and editing assignments since becoming a freelance contributing editor for Scientific American last year. I’ve been lucky to write for Wired, Popular Science, Nature, Gourmet and others. I have a few new book proposals percolating on the back burner, and I’m excited to get started on the next one. More on that soon hopefully!

[Image Credit: Supplied by Author ]