Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society

Joseph Needham’s Grand Question
As China reemerges on the science frontier, Simon Winchester offers a vivid account of one man’s mission to illuminate its innovative past.
By Peter Dizikes. Seed, May/June 2008

The Man Who Loved China, by Simon WinchesterUntil recent decades, Westerners were blissfully unaware that China, not Europe, was the civilization behind scores of history’s great inventions, from gunpowder to mechanical printing and the magnetic compass. It was in the 1950s that perceptions began changing, largely due to the work of one distinctive figure: Joseph Needham, an English biologist, diplomat, explorer, libertine, and, not least, historian of science.

Indeed, Needham’s remarkable multivolume work, Science and Civilization in China, upended traditional views of historical development. Gone, or at least receding, was the image of China as a scientific backwater throughout the long arc of history. In its place was “The Needham Question,” a scholarly riddle: Given that the Chinese developed so many technologies so many centuries ago, why did their culture of innovation stagnate within the last 500 years, while the West jumped ahead?

That lingering question has helped ensure Needham’s legacy since his death in 1995. Now he is the focus of Simon Winchester’s revealing biography, The Man Who Loved China. This seems a natural fit for Winchester, who has written extensively about Asia, science, and—in The Professor and the Madman, his book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary—herculean attempts to assemble and order human knowledge. In Needham, he has a subject who was not only a prodigious scholar but a scientist and Sinophile as well.

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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.


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The New York Times, June 29, 2008

The Meaning of the Butterfly
The Boston Globe, June 8, 2008

Joseph Needham's Grand Question
Seed, May/June 2008

Pure Science
The New York Times, April 13, 2008

Nature Nurtures Learning
The Boston Globe, December 31, 2007

Genes Open New Frontier in Privacy Debate
The Boston Globe, September 24, 2007

Cambridge Scientists Put on a Show
Nature Network Boston, May 1, 2007

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The Boston Globe, January 29, 2007

Genome Human
The New York Times, July 30, 2006

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Slate, February 3, 2006


Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society


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Photo credit: Flickr user alb Marcos, via a Creative Commons license