Monday, August 11, 2008



This is a good read. Simon Winchester provides a tight and fairly vigorous story of the remarkable man, Joseph Needham.

Needham was a brilliant man, gifted in science and languages. He was also a genuine non-conformist, both in his personal life and in political affairs, and he had the fabled abilities of a great scholar to sit for all hours of the day, day after day, analyzing ancient texts and writing world-recognized works about what he discovered.

Needham had the good fortune of being appointed by the British government, as a scientist of world reputation, on a mission to unoccupied China during World War II. His task was to contact as many Chinese academics as possible and help them obtain the resources, provided by the British government, they needed to carry on their work. This was both war-time assistance and an investment in future relations.

As in any effort he undertook, Needham quickly went to work with great vigor. He made a couple of epic journeys across large stretches of China and a number of smaller ones. He contacted many people of note, helping scientists and scholars obtain equipment and supplies to keep their efforts going under the great privations of war.

But, at the same time, he also did something else very important. He collected, wherever he found them and could purchase them, ancient Chinese texts which went back to England with him. Very early the idea struck him of writing a scholarly work on the ancient contributions of China to technology and science.

Needham was such an impressive intellect and so clearly in love with China - he typically wore gowns styled after the gowns worn by Chinese scholars and spoke fluent Mandarin and was bursting with enthusiasm about the things he saw and discovered - that a number of Chinese who only met him briefly were motivated to collect, long after he went home to England, and send him great quantities more of truly precious historical materials.

Needham's great project, a virtual encyclopedia of the history of Chinese science and technology, was never finished by him, but the volumes he did write were immediately embraced by the academic world as important new contributions to knowledge, and the work remains a classic.

Needham discovered - then unknown outside China - that the Chinese had invented a remarkable number of things before they were discovered in Europe. Moveable type - first in the ninth century as wood, later as bronze - was perhaps the most remarkable of these, but there were literally hundreds of others including an early compass and some very early sophisticated mathematics.

Needham's volumes became an important East Asian collection in the libraries of Cambridge University.

An interesting anecdote in the book, unrelated to the subject, concerns Needham's tours to lecture on his discoveries. One was to Chicago, and author Winchester discovered that Theodore Kaczynski, the gifted mathematician who later sank into deep schizophrenia and became the infamous Unabomber living in the wilderness, attended a lecture.

Winchester speculates whether that lecture, including a discussion of gunpowder as it did, might have influenced Kaczynski later. I did think this speculation a bit naïve and a bit of research would have eliminated it. Kaczynski grew up in Chicago, as I did, and as a teenager he made the newspapers with the sophisticated rockets he was building. His rockets were made of metal and used fuel more sophisticated than gunpowder, becoming a subject of interest because they climbed over a mile in altitude, possibly threatening civilian aviation. It seems pretty clear he did not need Needham's lecture on gunpowder.

My only regret about this book is that it was too brief. Needham and his adventures and work are a large subject.