April 29, 2024


By Aarathi Prasad
Review by
Aarathi Prasad’s entertaining and enlightening history of silk brims with story and scientific detail, revealing a surprising history well worth knowing.
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Aarathi Prasad does not exaggerate when she subtitles her fascinating new book “A World History.” Silk says little about trade routes or the precious fabric itself, but a lot about the ancient and modern cultures that cultivated silkworms and the wonderful biology of this shape-shifting insect.

Prasad is a biologist, so it is not surprising that the first and longest section of Silk relates the extraordinary stories of some of the methodical, obsessed, passionate observers—today we would call them citizen scientists—who steadily deepened our understanding of a variety of silk-producing insects. Maria Sibylla Merian, for example, began studying and drawing insects in 1660 when she was 13, and later produced beautiful, highly sought-after etchings of the transformation of caterpillars. Her observations led her to accurate conclusions about the life cycle of moths that were at odds with the standard wisdom of many trained men of science. Merian later traveled to the Dutch colony of Surinam, probably the most brutal slave state in the Americas, to continue her observations.

Merian, like the other appealing and idiosyncratic researchers Prasad portrays, was a product of her times. She was often dismissed because she was a woman, but she also participated in her society’s ingrained racism. Prasad is alive to these frictions. For example, she underlines the researchers who relied on unacknowledged native informants, and the vain British explorers who thought it impossible, even when confronted with evidence, that ancient Asian cultures could have produced technologically sophisticated societies. These complications increase our awareness that silkworms were as culturally fraught to the economies of their times as oil is to us today.

The second section is about sea silk, the weird, easily degradable thread from a Mediterranean sea mollusk now threatened with mass extinction. Prasad also explores with equal verve the many attempts to cultivate and monetize filaments of silk produced by spiders. In her final section, she examines the promises of using silk, a sustainable, biological material, for smart technologies “promoting health and preventing the further desecration of our natural world.”

Silk is entertaining and enlightening, brimming with story and scientific detail. It reveals a surprising history well worth knowing.


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By Aarathi Prasad
William Morrow
ISBN 9780063160255

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