If one thought, as I admit I did, that a book with “Silk” and “History” in its title would be (yet another) about China and the Silk Road, one will soon be disabused. Aarathi Prasad, a biologist and science writer, opens with the Lepidoptera floors at London’s Natural History museum. Silk, argues Prasad, has a much more complicated story that the conventional one of China and the Chinese silkworm Bombyx mori: “there is not just one silk, there is not just one story of silk. Not one road, one people who found it, nor who made it.” Indeed, some of the earliest silk cocoons ever found, from Xiyin Cun some two hundred kilometres west of Shuanghuaishu and dating from 3500 BCE, aren’t Bombyx mori at all.

The exploration of the Himalaya contributed vastly to scientific knowledge. From botanical discoveries, to understanding of how human bodies work at altitude, to pioneering the use of new scientific equipment, the mountain range had an immense importance. Yet its hostile environment meant that this knowledge was not easily gained. Moreover these scientific endeavors were by no means apolitical. Empire and imperialism was a central aspect of these activities. Despite the notional purity of science and scholarship, these western surveyors, naturalists and scientists were taking part in the imperial project.