Bomb, Book and Compass

Bomb, book and Compass : Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China by Simon Winchester is another fine book by Winchester where he looks at a character associated with a great book. In this case Winchester looks at the life of Joseph Needham, the English polymath who established and wrote many chapters of the great book Science and Civilisation in China (SCC) that chronicles the contributions made by the Chinese to the world. Needham posed the question: Why didn’t China develop modern science and dominate the world as Europe did despite China’s early lead?

Needham is a great character to write about. In the first Chapter: The Barbarian and the Celestial Needham’s remarkable rise is catalogued. The son of a Scottish Doctor Needham was extraordinarily capable and learned a number of languages while still a teenager. He obtained his PhD in biochemistry when he was only 24. He wrote a number of very well received books by the time he was in his mid thirties. He also married a very capable scientist, Dorothy Moyle, who also studied biochemistry. Needham and Moyle had a very open marriage. Needham had a number of affairs including one which lasted for over 50 years with Lu Gwei-djen. Gwei-djen was also a biochemist and the three actually lived together. Gwei-djen sparked Needham’s interest in China, which led to Needham learning Chinese.

Needham’s combination of brilliance, scientific ability and fluency in Chinese led to Needham being appointed by the British government as the director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing during the Japanese occupation of much of China. There Needham travelled around unoccupied China meeting Chinese scientists and others and getting the scientific supplies that they requested. Needham also travelled around China and acquired books and studied what he could. His work and his travels are described in the second chapter, Bringing Fuel in Snowy Weather and third chapter, The Rewards of Restlessness. Needham also met the fascinating New Zealander Rewi Alley.

After the war Needham returned to Europe and briefly became head of the Natural Science division of UNESCO but the position did not agree with him. He returned to Cambridge and began his masterwork Science and Civilisation in China. In the early 1950s he was duped by the Chinese and Russian Communists into providing scientific credibility for a report on how the Americans had been using biological weapons in Korea. Needham’s reputation was severely damaged by this incident. Remarkably it did not appear to greatly dull Needham’s enthusiasm for Chinese Communism. His reputation was restored by the publication of the first volume of SCC which was well received regardless of Needham’s political beliefs.

Needham’s far Left views are presented quietly in the book. Needham is said to have question his sympathies after the Cultural Revolution where he found that a number of his contacts in China had disappeared. Little is said about whether Needham looked into The Great Chinese Famine and whether this type of incident also caused Needham to question his politics. It makes an interesting contrast to the biographies of anyone associated with Right Wing totalitarianism where much of the interest is focussed on how much they knew and how much they repented. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm looks at Needham’s politics in his review of the book.

The final chapters look at Needham’s honors and his death and the death of his wives. Needham was the only living person at the time to be a Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the British Academy and Companion of Honor. He helped establish the Needham Institute at Cambridge. His wife Dorothy died in 1987 and he married his long time mistress Gwei-djen who died soon after. Needham then died in 1995 at the age of 94.

The book presents a fascinating overview of an amazing man, his remarkable companions and the huge contribution they made in writing the great book SCC. The book is fairly short at 265 pages of description with some 70 pages of appendices. Another hundred pages could well have been written but nonetheless Winchester has picked a great subject and written a fine book.

4.5 / 5

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3 responses to “Bomb, Book and Compass

  1. He sounds like a fascinating guy. Will have to read that one.

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