Bomb Book and Compass – Joseph Needham’s Research

Joseph Needham Bomb, Book and Compass
By Simon Winchester
Rating: Silver

Understanding the depth of China’s history seems particularly important as we enter the Asian Century. Winchester, in his entertaining style, takes us on a discovery of  Chinese scientific progress through the ages.

The book was released with an alternative title, The Man who Loved China. It is an apt title as the book details how one of England’s most brilliant academics devoted his life to studying the broad expanse of China’s scientific history.

Winchester uncovers some startling facts and provides us with a riveting account of Joseph Needham’s great research.

Needham was a polygamist, nudist, committed socialist, brilliant scientist, sinophile and morris dancer. He led a life well outside the safety of normal mores.

Startling Facts Revealed by Joseph Needham

The book is far more than an account of an eccentric scientist and China’s scientific prowess over millenia. It is a jolting reminder of the dangers of Eurocentrism.

Needham devoted his life to documenting China’s technology supremacy that lasted millennia and questioning why Europe suddenly leaped ahead. In this age of a reawakened China, an understanding of how the pendulum of global change occurs seems particularly relevant.

Needham ‘uncovered’ amazing findings that the West had never known or had chosen to ignore.

Every schoolchild in the West was taught that Gutenberg invented the printing press when Chinese printers had, in fact, already been in operation for over 500 years before printing was introduced in the West.

Other Chinese scientific advances include:

  • Algorithm for extraction of square roots and cube roots: 1 AD;
  • Ball Bearings 2 AD;
  • Blood, distinction between arterial and venous: 2 BC;
  • Compass, magnetic for navigation: 1111 AD;
  • Grid technique, quantitative, used in cartography: 130 AD;
  • Melodic composition 475 AD;
  • Numerical equations of higher order, solution of 13C AD;
  • Pi, accurate estimation: 3 AD;
  • Printing, with woodblocks: 7C AD;
  • Rocket arrow launchers: 1367 AD;
  • Soybean, fermented: 200 BC;
  • Watermills, geared: 3C AD.
A Brilliant Trilogy of Books

I recommend reading this book as a trilogy. Jared Diamond’s seminal work in Guns, Germs and Steel details how societies form, grow and prosper.

Mix an understanding of those dynamics with this account of China’s scintillating history of research and scientific discovery. Then, top it off with a thorough reading of Civilisation by Niall Ferguson.

In the end, you will have serious reason to ponder the fragility of western dominance and to reassess the shallow foundations of the West’s current economic and scientific lead.

Photo by Mark Toohey


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About Mark Toohey

Mark Toohey is an experienced commercial lawyer who has worked with both major law firms and as general counsel in the media, telecommunications, software and IT industries. He has been a lawyer, company director, marketing director, company secretary and entrepreneur. Mark's commercial experience extends way beyond the theoretical. He has helped launch a number of start-up businesses and his hands on experience was gained from negotiating and documenting deals for a wide variety of business initiatives.