Chinese science and the 'Needham Question'

Don’t worry if you have never heard of The Needham Question. Neither had I, until I read Simon Winchester’s fascinating new book, The Man Who Loved China: the Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom (Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2008).

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By Jeff Bairstow

Don’t worry if you have never heard of The Needham Question. Neither had I, until I read Simon Winchester’s fascinating new book, The Man Who Loved China: the Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom (Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2008). You have probably heard of the book’s author, the British writer Simon Winchester, who also wrote The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World. I heartily recommend both those books, too.

But what about the Needham Question? Dr. Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a highly regarded English biologist who became an explorer and diplomat and, much influenced by his lifelong Chinese mistress, also became fascinated by the rise and fall of Chinese science. Why did the country that developed the abacus, gunpowder, the magnetic compass and many other inventions, long before the Western countries, fail to capitalize on them? This is the Needham Question that Winchester examines through his highly entertaining biography of the wildly eccentric Cambridge University scientist.

Needham had plenty of opportunities to pursue the development of science and technology in China when he made several extensive journeys there in the early 1940’s as a British government mission to offer aid to Chinese scientists. On these trips, Needham seized every opportunity to visit with Chinese scholars and grill them about the history of science in that vast country. He also met with major political figures, including communist leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai before they took power in China.

On his last mission, in late 1944, Needham and his Cambridge colleagues were fortunate to avoid the attention of the local police who were becoming suspicious of foreigners. The mission also very narrowly escaped from the rapidly advancing Japanese forces, which were unlikely to treat Needham and his colleagues as visiting diplomats.

Shortly after his return to Cambridge, where Needham was a Fellow of Caius College, he began work on his magnum opus, a work modestly entitled Science and Civilisation in China. In a 12-page proposal sent to Cambridge University Press in May of 1948, Needham wrote: “Preliminary plan of a book by Dr. Joseph Needham, FRS. It will be addressed, not to sinologists, nor to the general public, but to all educated people, whether themselves scientists or not, who are interested in the history of science, scientific thought, and technology, its relation to the general history of civilisation, and especially the comparative development of Asia and Europe.”

Needham envisaged a single book, but this estimate quickly jumped to four volumes and later seven volumes and now stands at 24 volumes. The most recently published volume (2008) is Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 11, edited by Dr. Donald B. Wagner—priced at $220! A complete set of Needham’s encyclopedic works would set you back some $4000. You will be better off reading this column, in my view.

And, of course, much has changed in China with the departures of Mao and Zhou and the introduction of the dramatically expansionist policies of the new Gang of Four. As Winchester notes, the major Chinese cities are changing daily with new buildings, bridges, roads, and railways booming everywhere. The New China is exploding with investment, not gunpowder, while the old China of Needham’s day is being submerged in the rubble of urban renewal. I’m not sure how long this headlong plunge into the future will last.

But, to give you some idea of where China is heading, as a parting shot, Winchester describes a huge billboard on the highway leading into the city of Jiuquan, China’s response to Cape Canaveral. In huge scarlet characters, both Chinese and Western, the board’s message is: “Without Haste, Without Fear, We Conquer the World.”

And, sadly, I have to report that I’m still not sure that I truly understand the question and/or its answers. Maybe the question is not relevant to modern-day China and so it may be purely academic after all.

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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
InMyView@yahoo.com

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