Science Book a Day Interviews Stephen Palumbi


Special thanks to Stephen Palumbi for answering 6 questions about his recently featured book, co-written with his son Anthony Palumbi – The Extreme Life of the Sea

Stephen R. Palumbi received his Ph.D. from University of Washington in marine ecology. His research group studies the genetics, evolution, conservation, population biology and systematics of a diverse array of marine organisms. Professor Palumbi’s own research interests are similarly widespread, and he has published on the genetics and evolution of sea urchins, whales, cone snails, corals, sharks, spiders, shrimps, bryozoans, and butterflyfishes. A primary focus is the use of molecular genetic techniques in conservation, including the identification of whale and dolphin products available in commercial markets. – Stanford bio

Stephen’s Lab:

Anthony’s Homepage:
Anthony’s Twitter:

#1 – What was the impetus for The Extreme Life of the Sea?

We wanted to try a different kind of environmental writing. By combining the talents a novelist and a scientist, we’d end up with an environmental book with lots of scenery and action, plot lines, characters and color. And science too.

#2 – From your point of view as a marine biologist, how much do we know about the extreme life of the sea? The creatures? The environment?

We know that there are organisms living in every dark, deep, hot, cold corner of the oceans. And we know some of them and how they live in such amazing places. Like the fish in the Antarctic that prevent freezing with an antifreeze protein in their blood, or a deep sea dragonfish that uses beams of red light to find its prey. There of course are a lot of species we haven’t discovered or don’t know in detail. That is what makes marine biology such an interesting field.

#3 – With the wide variety of environments that sea creatures can exist and evolve, are there lessons we can learn from these creatures? From a technological point of view or when we travel to distant worlds?

Marine survival tools have already contributed hugely to human industry. Antifreeze proteins are cloned and used in food. Whale fin shapes are used in fan blade re-design. The unbelievable number of microbes in the oceans are a treasure trove of metabolic tricks we are just now learning about.

#4 – Of all the creatures you discuss in the book, which was your favourite?

The answer changes almost every time the question is asked! I’d say one of them is the sailfish, which swims fastest of any other fish, but also eats at those speeds…40 mph. To be able to see details fast enough to react to food at 40mph, though, it has had to evolve heaters on the backs of its eyeballs and on its optic lobes.

#5 – Are any of the creatures you feature in your book able to cope with the changes due to climate change?

We study a reef in American Samoa that heats up regularly to temperatures above where corals are supposed to die. But these lagoons are full of healthy, growing corals. We’ve spent 8 years researching how they do this, and have discovered one tool box of genes that help these corals adjust themselves to high temperatures and another toolbox that gives these corals permanent high temperature protection.

#6 – What was it like working with your son? How did you both approach the writing of this book?

Tony is a fabulous writer with a great sense of style and a great appreciation for the value of science in a story. He is also FAST – much faster than a distracted Professor in writing his sections. He is also a gifted public speaker – who knew?! – so we have built a terrific stage show full of these amazing creatures.

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

Tony is in the middle of his next book on the multi-player video game World of Warcraft, which revolutionized the gaming industry but also was the first entry point for many people into the idea of a virtual life. We all have virtual lives now – on Facebook, blogs, etc – but 10 years ago, it was only orcs that had them.

Our next project is in the works. Scientist and novelist write a science book. Then the next step is…?


[Images supplied by author]


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