Monday, July 27

Bomb, Book & Compass - Simon Winchester

Subtitled Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China this is an account of how a British academic wrote the most famous history of scientific invention in china, focusing on advances and inventions originating decades, centuries and in some cases (like botanical grafting) millennia before their equivalents in the West. Joseph Needham was a biochemist who, during the second world war, branched off into unexpected areas, particularly sinology (the study of China), triggered by the initiation of what would prove to be a life-long relationship with Chinese scientist Lu Gwei-Djen, second only to his (open) marriage to Dorothy Needham.
Bomb, Book & Compass (the title refers to three particularly significant discoveries that initially originated in China) traces Joseph's early and academic life, his marriage to Dorothy, and his relationship with Lu, as well as his first trip to China in 1944. Along the way Winchester discusses recent Chinese history, particularly the effect of the Japanese invasion of China, and what became known as"the Needham question": why did China, initially so scientifically advanced, not built on these discoveries, with the consequence of being overtaken by advances in the West?
I have to admit that not only had I never heard of Needham before this, my knowledge of Asian/Eastern history in general and Chinese history in particular is woefully minuscule. Sadly, reading Bomb, Book & Compass has not significantly altered this, because I was unable to finish the book - from the beginning, where Winchester launches into Needhams' arrival in China in 1944 I was on the back foot. Who was this man, why was he in China, and why should I care? I found the narrative disjointed and distant, and I quit on page 125 (of 265), having learned of no inventions but the aforementioned grafting and that according to Gewi-Djen, or at least her father, "China had made an immensely greater contribution to world science and technology that anyone in the West had ever acknowledged... the two of them were perfectly convinced that China had invented scores of other things of which the West was conveniently ignorant."
Having recently read Doidges' The Brain That Changes Itself, I've resolved to learn a language in the next decade and thereby stave off dementia. Bomb, Book & Compass has inspired me to consider making Chinese that language, though I've not decided on whether to learn it as Cantonese or Mandarin. Otherwise, however, I feel unenlightened by this book on a fascinating topic. - Alex

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