Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book Review - The Man Who Loved China

Welcome to the OpenScientist Book-of-the-Month club.  Up first, "The Man Who Loved China", a biography of amateur China and science historian Joseph Needham.

Over the years author Simon Winchester has shown himself an expert in telling the stories of the exciting but eccentric people who have risen from obscurity to make lasting contributions to modern science.  In "The Professor and the Madman" he chronicled the works of Dr. William Minor, a U.S. Army surgeon and amateur linguist whose love of language allowed him to be one of the foremost citizen contributors to the original Oxford English Dictionary.  All this despite being locked up in an asylum the entire time.  Winchester similarly tells the story of surveyor William Smith in "The Map that Changed the World", a man whose insights and private passion for geology led him to create the first geological map of England and to collect a large fossil collection to support the burgeoning theory of evolution.  The author now sets his sights on another worthy man.

To Winchester, Joseph Needham is a man whose ambition and knowledge are exceeded only by his passion.  This manifests in his personal life through passions for women (including his one-time student and long-time mistress Lu Gwei-djen), worker's rights, and public nude bathing.  But all these passions pale to the excitement he felt for the Chinese people and the centuries of technological development that even most Chinese failed to grasp.  It was this passion for China and it's technological development brought him acclaim from far and wide. In time even his Chinese History colleagues would swallow their pride and recognize the giant strides the amateur Needham had made in the field.

In the following selection (page 69), Winchester describes the joy Needham felt as he began to grasp the importance of his search:

"Needham was making discoveries about China that very few -- whether Chinese or foreigners -- had ever managed to make before.  As a result, he was becoming ever more convinced.  With no more than just a little inquiry he -- a biochemist! an amateur! -- was finding out things about China that the Chinese themselves didn't know, and that even the most revered members of the small corps d'elite of Chinese scholars in the West didn't know either.  He was in consequence coming to the very firm conclusion that the book about which he and Gwei-djen had spoken so many times truly deserved to be more than just a vague notion.  It needed to be written, if for no other reason than to establish once and for all a just and proper reputation for China."
Once the discoveries began Needham spent increasing amounts of time in China traveling throughout the country.  As an English ambassador trying to help Chinese academics during the Japanese occupation by Japan, he met Chinese scientists, archaeologists, and historians who were able to give him pieces of the puzzle.  But even that had never fully grasped the bigger picture of China's advancement compared to the West.  Over the years he found numerous examples of eastern scientists being far ahead of the west, including discoveries of the compass (lodestone navigation), building of suspension bridges, woodblock printing, early cameras (camera obscura) and the seed drill. 

After years of collection it was finally time to put it all together.  Over the next 50 years he and his colleagues would write the 27 (and counting) volume tome "Science and Civilisation in China".  It continues being written to this day, based on the notes and collections obtained all those years ago.  And while a new generation is writing on his behalf his legacy will always be enshrined, much the way he always imagined it would.  On page 220 Winchester writes:
The public remembrance of great scientists, [Needham] concluded, could endure well beyond that of people whom mere accident of birth had made famous in their lifetimes.  This had been the case with Leonardo.  Perhaps, he suggested, it might one day be the same for him.
In Winchester's hands, Needham comes across as a man who let his passion for science and discovery drive him and who never let someone tell him he did not have the credentials for discovery.  It was his very "amateur" status, in fact, that allowed him to see what many others could not.  That may be his greatest legacy, and both Winchester and Needham look to us to fulfill it.

But that's just my opinion.  What did you think of the book?  Have you read any other books you think I'd enjoy?  Please share your comments below.


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