Monday, May 19, 2008

Needham's Grand Question

"A very tough egg is Dr. Needham -- large, muscular, a chain smoker, with a scalding brilliant tongue and no time for fools," a London newspaper columnist wrote in 1946. After two years in China, as head of the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office, Joseph Needham, a professor of biochemistry at Cambridge University, could solve just about any riddle -- "about sugar beet and foxglove seeds, yeast cultures and wooden shoes for Chinese airmen."
Needham was already launched on his master work, "Science and Civilisation in China," which ran to 18 volumes when he died in 1995 -- and is considered the greatest treatise on China ever written by a Westerner.
In "The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom," Simon Winchester, a masterly storyteller, follows Needham on 11 expeditions across 30,000 miles of rugged, war-torn terrain in a "damp, damnable" Chevrolet truck, as he searches for the Chinese origin of almost everything, from the abacus to the zoetrope. (read more...)

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