Books

Biologist Aarathi Prasad spins a fascinating history of a familiar fabric

When biologist and writer Aarathi Prasad learned that a piece of fabric woven from threads produced by a Mediterranean mollusk called Pinna nobilis had been found outside Budapest in a tomb of a woman mummified in the style of the ancient Egyptians, she got on a plane.

The museum holding the remains and most of the documentation of the discovery had been destroyed in a Nazi bombing during the 1940s, but she was undeterred. “I called the museum,” says Prasad, “and asked, Is there any chance you have anything? They said, Yes, yes, come and see. . . . My daughter asked, ‘Are you some kind of spy?’ I landed in Budapest and went directly to the museum. It was closed. They let me into the basement. [The mummified woman] was wrapped in hemp, very well preserved, they said. But did you find any silk? [I asked.] They said yes, when the sarcophagus was opened there was very fine fabric covering her. But it disappeared as soon as the lid was lifted.”

The unusual, hermaphroditic Pinna nobilis mollusks anchor themselves to rocks using distinct, transparent threads that spawned a regional weaving culture likely dating back to before the Phoenicians. The mollusks themselves had been a robust part of local diets until human-induced sea warming resulted in massive die-offs and imposed harvesting limits. That’s just one example in hundreds of fascinating facts and stories Prasad relates in her illuminating Silk: A World History, a book born out of her own obsessive pursuit of knowledge. “I have heard it said that scientific study can take away a sense of wonder because science reduces a miraculous organism into mere mechanical parts,” she writes. “I have never found that to be true. Perhaps I find miracles in mechanisms.”

“Traditional science books often feel like textbooks. Human stories bring them alive.”

Prasad devotes much of the lively middle of her book to the biology, culture and elusive history of Pinna nobilis silk, seeking to resolve how long people have been weaving mollusk silk fabric. “It’s so intriguing,” she says. “Chances are this fabric was widely used around the Mediterranean. It existed. Then for a while no one knew it existed, and now we are trying to prove it existed. In the meantime, the animals these threads come from are critically endangered because of human activities. There’s a big metaphor about life somewhere in that.”

Normally Prasad’s research is not so dramatic. She is now an honorary researcher at University College London, and her current project is as a geneticist on archaeological digs in Rome and Pompeii. She raised her daughter, Tara, now in her early 20s, as a single parent while holding down academic and research jobs. Employment and parenting meant she usually worked on Silk and her two previous books, one on Indian medicine and the other on how science is altering conception, in the early mornings and late evenings. Tara has traveled with her on many research forays, to India and “into different, difficult situations,” Prasad says with a hint of pride, “so that she now tells people trying to advise her on her studies, ‘Oh, I’ve never let school get in the way of my education.’” Tara has also dismissed her mother’s experimental efforts to grow silkworms herself. “They poop a lot,” Prasad admits. “My daughter was disgusted.”

Prasad’s interest in silk arose first “through science, through the application of silk in regenerative medicine, creating new parts for the heart or applying it to rebuilding the body in a more organic, less invasive way.” Her book profiles the contemporary scientists working at the cutting edge of bioengineering animals like goats (so far unsuccessfully) to produce silk with the strength of a strand of a spider’s web, or experimenting with ways to incorporate silk into biomedicine or even as alternatives to plastics. “I was surprised in talking to these scientists to discover that they found the environmental impact more interesting than the surgical or biological applications,” Prasad says. “Because to them it’s a material that could and should be applied to planetary sustainability.”

That outlook is the almost polar opposite of the attitudes of many of the Western scientists Prasad profiles in the opening section of Silk. Curious, eccentric and sometimes obsessed, these were men (and some women) of their times: the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. As such, their interests reflected a colonizer’s point of view.

“European science has actually been quite extractive,” says Prasad. “So I fell down this rabbit hole of colonial history. I learned this from my India book [In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room] as well. Countries colonized by the British and the French had their own systems of knowledge cut off. The British asked their military men and doctors to do etymology on the side. They said, essentially, go out and find the coal, go find the trees, go find the animals and plants. That’s how they made their money. There was a lot of abusive behavior, not even mentioning slavery. And how would scientists from Europe know about plants and animals in another country? By speaking to local people. But it is impossible to know who those people were because they were never named.”

Prasad’s awareness of cultural appropriation and the dismissal of Indigenous expertise percolates through the book, adding voltage to her depiction of the pursuit of knowledge about silkworms. The most common silkworm, Bombyx mori, was at the center of global trade. “The fact that it was bred for so long in homes and factories specifically for its silken cocoons,” Prasad writes, “made this caterpillar so docile, prevalent, and immobile that it would also become the focus of intense scientific study.” As described in magnificent detail here, Bombyx mori would become one of the first insects to be analyzed in precise anatomical detail in the 17th century by Marcello Malpighi. Silkworm studies also led an early researcher to propose a germ theory of disease before Louis Pasteur’s widely known discoveries. Later researchers would discover that the patterns on silk moths and other moths absorb sound energy from predatory bats using echolocation to hunt. The moths mimic the sound waves, allowing them to create a cloak against detection.

“I was astonished to find so many women who were natural historians. Why has hardly anyone ever heard of them?”

“Traditional science books often feel like textbooks. Human stories bring them alive,” Prasad says, explaining her decision to nest the science in her early chapters within miniature biographies of the researchers and their cultures. “I grew up in the Caribbean and came to England as a teenager. I loved history but I had to choose at some point between history and science, and I chose science. In England I learned about the Normandy landings in the Second World War—not that there were Indians and Africans fighting in the war. Just the European perspective. Whereas in Trinidad, I learned about slavery and the Aztecs and all of these cultures that weren’t ours. Sometimes we have to educate ourselves because what we’re taught in schools is not necessarily going to give us the full story.”

She adds, “In writing the book, I was astonished to find so many women who were natural historians. Why has hardly anyone ever heard of them? Their work was used but rarely acknowledged.”

Prasad found one of these women, Maria Sibylla Merian, particularly captivating. A 17th-century Dutch illustrator and naturalist, her drawings were used by Linneaus to classify more than 100 species. But her observations were often dismissed by male scientists. “She got on a ship and sailed with her daughter across the Atlantic,” Prasad says. “She was the first person to go to study nature as a scientist. Other people went for other reasons. Darwin went as a doctor. She went for science and nothing else. . . . She was a single mother too, and she wanted to see with her own eyes.”

Read our starred review of ‘Silk’ by Aarathi Prasad.

Photo of Aarathi Prasad by Tara Lumley-Savile.

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