Bomb, Book & Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China
Many — from Napoleon onwards — can lay claim to forecasting the greatness of China, but few dedicated their lives to exploring its culture, civilization, and science in such depth as Joseph Needham, the brilliant Cambridge biochemist who was reputed to be the Erasmus of his day. His fascination with China was precipitated by a love affair with a visiting young researcher, Lu Gwei-djen, who became his mistress in 1938 in an unconventional threesome that was wholly accepted by his wife, Dorothy, and lasted until her death some fifty years later.
Needham’s first visit to China in 1943 came at a difficult time: the Japanese invasion was still in progress and the attack on Pearl Harbor had happened two years previously. During the course of eleven expeditions, ostensibly to boost the morale of China’s scientists and academics, he pursued his obsessive search for the ‘Chinese origin of just about everything’ — from the abacus, gunpowder, the compass, and printing down to such mundane but world-changing inventions as the stirrup, ballbearings, toilet paper, and the spinning wheel. This compendium of knowledge eventually emerged as his 24-volume masterpiece, Science and Civilisation in China, which remains an unrivalled account of China’s ‘first after first’ in scientific invention. In the 1950s Needham committed a political blunder after being invited by the Chinese to chair a commission that confirmed America’s alleged use of biological weapons. His lifelong flirtation with international communism played into the hands of the McCarthyists and, despite the international acclaim for each new volume of his work, Needham remained on the US blacklist until well into the 1970s. Needham brought ‘a lost world to life, through an intensity of recapture, of empathic insight which is the attribute of a great historian, but, even more of a great artist’. This book offers an eminently readable account of an extraordinary life.