Oprah Time: Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and The Great Secret of China by Simon Winchester

The old adage of the victor writing history applies not only to wars but also the history of innovation and science. Everything you were taught in school about the history of science is likely to be wrong, usually having a European focus; from the Greeks and Romans to the Italian-based renaissance via the wisdom preserved within the monasteries of Europe during the dark and early medieval ages.

Book, the book and the compass

The Chinese, in comparison, were seen as inscrutable and cunning rather like the Fu Manchu character of Sax Rohmer’s novels but less sophisticated than their European counterparts. This diacotomy helped assuage the consciences of empire-builders who had designs on the riches of the Chinese market, from bringing away silk and porcelain to finding a ready market for Indian-grown opium and laying the foundations for the modern-day heroin trade.

Up until the European’s arrived China was the world’s largest manufacturer, counting for about 30 per cent of the economic activity by value in the world. This time of weakness is what the Chinese refer to as the century of shame, which was finally laid to rest when they claimed back Macau in 1999.

Bomb, Book & Compass is the story of Cambridge biochemistry professor Joseph Needham and his quest to find the real truth behind the history of science and China’s role within it, he did this during the chaos of the second world war, when he had the chance to get at the documentary evidence.

He then spent the rest of his life curating and writing material for a vast series of books Science and Civilisation in China in China. These books were not only a historical record that put China closer to the centre stage position that they deserved in science, but also put the country on a more even standing with the ‘civilised world’ restoring or enhancing its reputation. In some respects Needham’s work could be considered to be the largest unpaid (in that China didn’t pay for it) corporate reputation campaign in the annals of public relations.

Bomb, Book & Compass is a compelling read, by turns adventure, travelogue and political intrigue. I would recommend it, if nothing else for the very human portrait it paints of Joseph Needham as a man of great intellect and passion, but also a man with some very human failings.