Monday, May 26, 2008

"CHINA SCIENCE: China's Greatest Student"

"The making of Joseph Needham's multi-volume masterpiece."

There is a review by Judith Shapiro in Sunday's Washington Post of THE MAN WHO LOVED CHINA: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries Of the Middle Kingdom By Simon Winchester.

I have been reading the biography of Joseph Needham, and it is indeed a good read. Needham was the man who put the "S" in UNESCO. Assigned by the British to head a scientific delegation to China in World War II, he came to believe that it was important for the scientifically developed nations to help the scientifically less developed portions of the globe to develop their scientific capacity. Not only did he network with other scientists to build support for this position, but he took advantage of the development of UNESCO as a United Nations agency serving the intellectual communities of its member states as a vehicle for his proposed international scientific organization. He then was asked by UNESCO's first Director General, Julian Huxley (no mean scientist himself), to serve as the first Assistant Director General for Science. He did so for two years.

Needham was a towering intellect. He was a leader in the field of biochemistry prior to World War II, with a remarkable flare for languages which allowed him to learn Chinese when his laboratory began to host Chinese exchange researchers in the 1930's. His greatest intellectual contribution, however, was the 18 volumes he wrote of the 25 volume history of Science and Civilization in China that he conceptualized -- a series which radically changed our understanding not only of the contributions of China to our modern technological civilization, but which more broadly raised issues about the factors that lead to the industrial revolution and which challenged Western chauvinism.

Winchester is the best selling author of previous scientific biographies who writes very well. Needham was as flamboyant a subject as a biographer could want, as well as a great intellect who left an important intellectual and organizational legacy for the world.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

Sid Passman made the following comment on this posting:

"Thank you for calling attention to the Book Review of the man who loved China
in yesterday's Wash. Post book section.

"You should know that UNESCO published an excellent biography of Joseph Needham by my good friend and former UNESCAN, Maurice Goldsmith.

"In interviews, Needham always downplayed his two year stay at UNESCO as
a disappointment! He does get credit for initiating the UNESCO field offices,
although he conceived them as collection points of country data and materials,
not the development facilitators that they have become.

"I met him once in 1973, in Poland, where we participated in the 500th anniversary of Copernicus' birth He was with his Chinese colleague and later wife.

"I believe that he did not have the title of ADG/Science and I personally believe that the US delegation to the 1945 London Conference deserves equal credit for putting the S in UNESCO."