Saturday, June 13, 2009
Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China by Simon Winchester
There's a certain intimidating grandeur about a book that takes a lifetime to write. Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China occupies 24 volumes - the first appeared in 1954 and more are planned, even though he died in 1995 - and he typed it all with only two fingers. Simon Winchester's account of how this magnum opus came into being (no one volume should be "too big for a man to read comfortably in his bath", Needham reasonably maintained) is just as enjoyable a read as the remarkable tale of how a married Cambridge academic's affair with a young Chinese woman in 1937 diverted him from studying biochemistry to chronicling China's 5,000-year history of invention and innovation. The Chinese, it seems, invented almost everything before us, yet despite Needham's tireless research, sinologists still don't know why they stopped. Did totalitarianism stifle China's inventors and entrepreneurs? The story of Needham's eccentric life - not least how he became persona non grata in the US - is gripping stuff, even if we are never likely to open his life's work.