Simon Winchester's new biography reads like a thriller, even though it is about Joseph Needham, whose claim to fame is having produced 17 volumes of highly specialized scholarship known collectively as "Science and Civilisation in China" after the age of 40.
There is probably nothing more boring than the life of a research scholar, yet Winchester ("Krakatoa," "The Map That Changed the World," "The Professor and the Madman") manages to make this story quite interesting.
By Simon Winchester
Along the way he informs us about Needham's love for China's history, ancient and modern, and its accomplishments. Winchester concentrates on Needham's flamboyant and eccentric character and those parts of his life which were filled with action, adventure and famous people.
As a scientist he demonstrated his brilliance early in life and was also an enthusiast for various subjects and causes including Morris dancing, socialism, nudism and women, not necessarily in that order.
At Cambridge University, he pursued scientific research in biochemistry and women with equal avidity. In 1924 he married Dorothy Moyle, another biochemist, and they maintained an open marriage, which lasted until her death more than 60 years later.
In 1937, Needham took as his lover, Lu Gwei-djen, a brilliant biochemist from Nanjing, and Moyle accepted her into their marriage. That arrangement, too, lasted until Moyle died and Needham married Lu.
She introduced Needham to China's language and culture at a time when Japan's invasion of the country focused the West's attention and sympathy on the country. Soon, China would become a weak but important ally in World War II.
By that time Needham's facility with the language and his prestige made him an obvious choice to direct Britain's cultural support program for Chinese scientists and scholars.
Once in China, he launched the research project that became the obsession that dominated the rest of his life -- the discovery and recognition of China's many early technological achievements.
His research began the day he arrived in the country and ended only with his death.
Most of the narrative, however, covers Needham's adventurous and dangerous three-year stay in China during World War II. It was exciting times for him, filled with hardships, but he also met and befriended scientists, scholars, government and military leaders including Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.
Both his work and these contacts gave him access for his research and he found evidence everywhere of the early development of sophisticated technology. Yet, Winchester tells us less about the research and much more about the personal details and events of Needham's stay there.
That approach makes for a better story, of course, but Needham's real achievements were as a researcher.
Despite his support for the Chinese revolution it was his passion for the country's past that captured him. As his research turned up early advances in Chinese science, he pondered more and more what historians now call the "Needham question" -- why did the Chinese, whose cultural achievement preceded and surpassed the West's, not develop modern science first?
It's an interesting question, but one which Needham did not feel he could answer.
What he did do was to document and make widely available to the rest of the world, the extraordinary accomplishments of an important culture.
If only Winchester understood that it would have been more useful to ignore Needham's troubles with his Jeep and focus more about those achievements, however.
For Needham, familiarity bred respect. Perhaps, we too, need to learn more about a country and a people who will, more and more, affect how we live our lives.
Michael Helfand is professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh......