Renowned author Simon Winchester has written a wonderful book about a scientist most people have not heard about, but should have. Joseph Needham was a biochemist, nudist, socialist-leaning British scientist at prestigious Cambridge University. He was devoted both to his wife and his mistress, the latter of whom was a visiting Chinese scientist who introduced him to the culture he would obsessively love and study the rest of his life.
That obsession led to a series of epic volumes (now 7 “volumes” in 24 books, and counting) called “Science and Civilisation in China.” In it he documents in great detail how most of the inventions and scientific we have come to know as western were actually originally invented and envisioned in China (step aside Gutenberg, the printed book predated you by several centuries).
Winchester touches on some of those inventions, but mostly the book traces the man, his journeys in China during the Japanese occupation and second world war, his socialistic leanings (including meeting Chou Enlai and Mao Zedong), and the trials of creating his masterpiece, which was only partially finished at his death at 95 years old. At one point, soon after Mao has taken over China and the western world (including his campus) are in the midst of the “red scare,” Needham finds himself duped by his former friends in China, which nearly crashes his career and book project. Winchester examines that blunder and Needham’s slow climb back to acceptability, then the great success of creating one of the greatest treatises on the history of science.
An eye-opening book in many ways, exceptionally well-written by one of today’s most successful non-fiction writers. Of interest to scientists, to those who are interested in China, and anyone who wants to learn more about both.
More on “Science and Civilisation in China” can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_and_Civilisation_in_China.
David J. Kent has been a scientist for thirty-five years, is an avid science traveler, and an independent Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (now in its 5th printing) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His book on Thomas Edison is due in Barnes and Noble stores in spring 2016.