There are 2 facets of Simon Winchester's work that make him one of my favorite authors. Firstly, he brings amazing players in History forward that I very often have never heard of. Secondly, he makes reading History tremendously fascinating. The latter should be a given, how can our past be anything but fascinating? The reality is that History books can be painful to read.
Noel Joseph Terrence Montgomery Needham is the subject of Mr. Winchester's 19th work, sound familiar? Not to me. However by the end of the book I look forward to seeking out more about this man as Mr. Winchester has a knack for catalyzing a reader's interest well beyond the book he offers. Professor Needham was a astonishing man who filled his 94 years with remarkable travels, eccentric behavior and a decision so poor the reader will ask was he a fool or a knave? (Question posed by the author)
What is not in dispute is the marvelous history of China Professor Needham documented through first hand investigation over thousands of miles traveled in China (many in war time) and the decades of research that followed. The only other historian that comes to mind as being so single minded in his pursuit of a subject is Sir Martin Gilbert and his decades long work on Sir Winston Spencer Churchill.
The work is also timely as it coincides with China's re-entry as a focal point for the world. China's existence is best measured in millennia and her scientific contributions when listed are nearly as long and often pre-date conventional wisdom on who was first with a given invention. Think you know where printing was first documented, suspension bridges first built, how about the compass, blood circulation or perhaps a flame-thrower?
China's recent history is no indicator of its fantastic past and may more likely be an indicator of what is yet to come. This is another great read by a wonderful author who never disappoints.