22 April, 2009

Book 8 - Bomb, Book and Compass, or: Scientists get all the chicks

Completely unrelated link of the day: Orisinal: Morning Sunshine is where I spend my tea breaks at work. It has a few dozen beautifully designed games, most of which are horribly addictive. My all-time favourite has to be Winterbells, where you, as an adorably cute bunny rabbit, have to jump and hit as many falling bells as possible. But I also love Floats, and Bugs, and Cats, and OK I just love everything.

The People have spoken:
Colonel Mustard is the favourite murder suspect of The People, no doubt because of his colonial attitudes and suspicious moustache, and the fact that mustard is probably the worst condiment ever invented (besides barbeque sauce, ugh.) Please answer this week's poll, which asks a question for the ages: which branch of science is the sexiest?

Obviously the most suspicious thing about him
is that he has a yellow cone instead of a body.

And now, to business: I seldom read nonfiction, which probably makes me a terrible person, but in my defence my history textbooks in high school were about as dry and boring as the surface of the moon, and they more or less scarred me for life. However, every now and then my interest in something will be piqued by a movie I watch, or a fictional story I read, and then I'm forced to turn to my old foe, Nonfiction, for answers (I like to imagine Nonfiction as an olde-time villain, twirling his moustache, hiding behind his cape, and tying young, virginal women to railway tracks).

Title: Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China (2008)
US Title: The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom (2008)

Author: Simon Winchester

Why this book? What with the Olympics being held there last year and everything, it suddenly became trendy to actually have some sort of interest in China. Although, in my case, it was actually a review of this book in my local paper that made me interested to find out more about the life and times of Joseph Needham. I bought it and started reading it last year, but I never really had a chance to get stuck into it until this year.

What's it all about, anyway?
Joseph Needham (full name: Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, awesome) was a radical scientist working at Cambridge in the 1920's. Radical in the sense of his political and social views, which were definitely a little left of the spectrum, and by a little I mean a lot, although his ideals and sentiments were not entirely unusual for an academic of his day. He studied embryology and morphogenesis, and was married to a fellow biochemist Dorothy Moyle, who was lucky enough to also be offered research opportunities at Cambridge at a time when few women were.

Joseph and Dorothy had an open relationship, and in the 1930's Needham began an affair with a visiting Chinese scientist, Lu Gwei-djen, who began to teach to write and speak Classical Chinese, and who gave him the name Li Yuese. Thanks to Lu, Needham's interest in, and passion about, China began to grow, and when, in 1944, the Royal Society offered him a chance to actually travel to China, he took it.

Officially, Needham's role was a kind of goodwill ambassador to Chinese Universities - parts of China were being occupied by Japan at this time, and as a way of demoralising the Chinese people the Japanese were closing and ransacking her universities - in at least one case, university buildings were turned into brothels. Needham traveled the country - in itself a difficult feat, what with the war going on and all - visiting Chinese academics, showing that the international community had not forgotten about them (yet). He realised that many of the scientific discoveries that the West had claimed as its own had in fact first been discovered in China - a realisation that eventually lead to him writing his opus, Science and Civilisation in China.

The Good and the Bad:
OK, I realise this doesn't sound like the most scintillating read, but Winchester has an light, racy style of writing, always finding little bits of information, picking up on the oddities of Needham's life in Cambridge and China, and going off into tangents about the other famous figures that Needham meets, most of whom are just as eccentric as he was - people like Rewi Alley and Wang Ling - scientists, archaeologists, politicians. A lot of the information comes directly from Needham's diary, too, so it doesn't feel like Winchester is interpreting Needham's life, just describing it.

Winchester clearly admires Needham, but it's probably also fair to say he neither condones nor condemns his views and behaviour. That's one of the best things about this book, because while Needham's views disn't bother me especially (although his support of Communism did bother a lot of people) his behaviour frequently did. Needham was an unabashed womaniser, and although he and his wife did supposedly have an open relationship there is no mention of Dorothy having any extra-marital affairs. In fact, both Moyle and Lu completely fascinated me, yet the information about them compared to many of the other figures in Bomb, Book and Compass seemed rather sparse. It's a great pity - these were two women that not only influenced Needham's life and passions but who both defied the odds themselves, if in a much quieter way. I would have liked to get to know them a little better.

Womanising aside, by the time I had finished this book I was half in love with China myself, and very much ashamed that I know so little about a country that is so vast and which holds so much history and so much culture (and so much science, of course.) I guess this book made me realise that, while China can be a controversial subject, there's so much more to her than political manoevering - that beyond the politics, there's a China who's really worth discovering.

Lastly, I have to say that I have no idea why the Powers The Be decided that the good people of America needed a different title to the good people of everywhere else, especially since, in my opinion, Bomb, Book and Compass has a much nice ring to it than The Man Who Loved China, which sounds a little like a James Bond ripoff. Perhaps they were worried that the word 'bomb' had connotations of terrorism? Or maybe they worried that if people bought something with the word 'book' in the title they might realise they'd actually been tricked into reading one? Or perhaps it was a push from the Anti-Compass Lobby? We may never know.

So should I read it or what? This is definitely one of the best biographies I've ever read; possibly the best. Bomb, Book and Compass is not the book to read if you're looking for light entertainment - but if you're looking for entertainment with substance you should give it a chance.

1 comment:

Sadako said...

Never heard of Joseph Needham, but he, and this book, sound awesome, so I will try to check it out. Always looking for good nonfiction.