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ChatChat - Claudia Cragg

May 21, 2008

Joseph Needham and 'The Needham Question'. Well, the subject caused the most tremendous brouhaha in The New York Times last week (Simon Winchester, New York Times, Op Ed, May 15th, 2008). I can only think those who responded with such vitriol to Winchester knew absolutely nothing at all about Winchester and his work, nor anything about the subject of his new book. In this latest opus, the award-winning Foreign Correspondent, Simon Winchester returns with the remarkable story of the growth of a great nation, China, and the eccentric and adventurous scientist who defined its essence for the world in his multi-volume opus, 'Science and Civilization in China'.

In an interview with Claudia Cragg, Winchester relates how most of us know that the Chinese invented a great variety of objects and devices long before they were known of in the West. Not simply famous things like gunpowder and paper, but also harnesses for horses which had a huge effect on the West when they arrived.

Why, though, did Modern Science develop in Europe when China seemed so much better placed to achieve it? This is the so-called 'Needham Question', after Joseph Needham, the 20th century British Sinologist who did more, perhaps, than anyone else to try and explain it.

Needham was a British biochemist and was elected a fellow of both the Royal Society and the British Academy. In China, he is known mainly by his Chinese name Li Yuese He was also cited by the United States during the McCarthy era for his investigation into the use of illegal weapons by the US on the Koreans in the Korean War.

Winchester, The New York Times bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa is a writer and adventurer whose articles have appeared in such publications as the National Geographic and Conde Nast Traveler . He has now written well over a dozen books on travel and history.