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Bomb, Book & Compass: Joseph Needham & the Great Secrets of China

3.77  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,944 Ratings  ·  487 Reviews
The seventeenth-century philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon famously declared that nothing had changed the world more profoundly than three great inventions: gunpowder, printing and the compass. What he didn't know was that the Chinese had been successfully using all three long before the West ever 'invented' them. And yet it was another 300 years before a remarkable man c ...more
Hardcover, 317 pages
Published 2008 by Viking Books (first published January 1st 2000)
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"No knowledge is ever to be wasted or despised."
(Dr Needham, snr)
Every hobby has an intellectual angle, and Needham (jr) was obsessively interested in everything.

An exhilarating change from my usual fare (though it fits with my fondness for China and Cambridge): a biography of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), an eccentric but brilliant multilingual Cambridge biochemist who fell in love with a Chinese woman, then her language and her country, becoming the world expert in and ambassador for the histor
Will Byrnes
Mar 11, 2015 Will Byrnes rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, science
He decided initially to make a great historical list, a list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea—the building blocks of modern world civilization—that had been first conceived and made in China. If he could managed to establish a flawless catalog of just what the Chinese had created first, of exactly which of the world’s ideas and concepts had actually originated in the Middle Kingdom, he would be on to something. If he could delve behind the unforgettable remark that emperor Qianl
Riku Sayuj

Great background reading for anyone contemplating the epic task of taking on the fifteen (and more) volumes of Science and Civilisation in China -- one the greatest compendiums of knowledge, a supreme feat of imagination and will power, and one of the most lasting bridges built between the east and the west.

Winchester provides the historic and political backdrop for the composition and allows us to understand why it was such an important work — why it was so necessary and so brave an undertaking
Jason Koivu
May 16, 2013 Jason Koivu rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Joseph Needham


A man with a beautiful mind, one seemingly forged for the hard sciences - he worked in a college laboratory at Cambridge University specializing in embryology and morphogenesis - betrayed itself with that willful miscreant known as love, and in this case it was a love for China. Needham threw himself into the study of Chinese history and some thought at the time that he'd thrown away all he had to offer the world. But he provided them wrong, proved there was more in him than they'd
Simon Winchester never fails to entice the reader, and here in the audiobook version he marvelously reads his own book. He teaches effortlessly. He infuses humor into his lines. He writes about characters and places and times that are interesting. His books focus not only on the details but also encompass the larger picture; you are delivered not only one man's life but also world events.

In this book we follow Joseph Needham from childhood to death. He lived from 1900-1995. He was a bio-chemist
Sep 18, 2008 Trevor rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Yet another fascinating book and story by a master. There is one thing you can say about Simon Winchester, he does like a good polymath and that love of learning and the learned shines through every page.

In a world where the next Vice President of the USA (or President if the Bible’s allotted three score and ten are anything to go by) could be someone who could more accurately be described as a polymoron – someone dangerously ignorant of just about everything except, obviously, how to skin a moo
Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch

A chatty, repetitive, but easily readable map of the life of Joseph Needham, a diligent weaving of what must have been many hundreds of notes into an often cinematic narrative with countless curious digressions along the way.

As with perhaps any biography though, I am left with questions, large and small. I’ll list four I cannot escape.

Before that however, I feel compelled to note the occasional and surprising instances of Winchester verging on unpleasant condescension toward the Chinese themse
I found this book an absolutely wonderful read.

Its title is perfect. Joseph Needham was an academic, a socialist and a biochemist - and he did indeed love China very deeply.

The first part of the book covers his trip to China in 1943. China was at war with the Japanese, and they had overrun a third of the country to the east. He was sent to western China – which was free of Japanese influence. His task there was to do what he could help Chinese scientists carry on working – basically he was an e
Aug 04, 2008 J. rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: ..China Science & Culture readers...
Slightly rickety account of the remarkable 20th century life of Joseph Needham, Cambridge Master and author of the mega-sized multi-volume Science & Civilisation In China. In a wildly stormy life that veered from being a founding father of UNESCO to meetings with Mao & Zhou EnLai before there was a Peoples Republic, Mr Needham saw quite a lot. Needham was in a pivotal position during the many phases of the origin of Modern China as a British Foreign Office scientific representative, arri ...more
Dec 03, 2009 Natali rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Simon Winchester does the kind of research that could never be accomplished with a Google search. His work is layered and so impossibly thorough that reading his books makes me fearful that this kind of scholarship could become extinct with the quick-draw research that the net generation has become accustomed to.

The Man Who Loved China is about Joseph Needham, a researcher much like Winchester. In fact, it is very meta that one of the world's greatest researchers should write a book about one o
When I was a student at the University of Oslo studying Chinese, Joseph Needham used to come up to our department. As one of the few students with a car, it was my job to pick him up at the airport, ferry him about town, and generally take care of him. I was with him at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo while he studied the construction of the Viking ships, remarking at some of the similarities with ancient Chinese shipbuilding (a subject mentioned in the book). When he left one of his ever-present ...more
May 29, 2011 Mike rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I do not often hand out a “5” (one was for Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman”) and will decide on the start count after I finish this review. It is worth no less than a “4.5” if such a ranking existed.

After reading “The Professor and the Madman” I could not imagine the author topping or equaling that book. While it may not be everyone’s opinion I thought that that story was so well researched, written, and presented (even the afterwards bits) that anythin
Andrew Georgiadis
May 10, 2014 Andrew Georgiadis rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, nonfiction
Also known as "The Man Who Loved China" in American editions (because our versions are necessarily dumbed-down), this is the story of Joseph Needham's quest to understand an Eastern culture to which he was introduced in adulthood. A professor of chemistry and one with no official qualifications to undertake a work of rigorous history, he embarked on one of the most ambitious, lengthy, and meticulously researched pieces of scholarship in human history. At twenty-eight volumes and still in print, ...more
As I read this book, I couldn't help thinking of a Broadway tune written back in 1917 called "China - We Owe a Lot to You." Part of it goes:

"Chin-a , way out in Asia Mi-nor
No country could be fi-ner
Be-neath the sun.
You gave us silk to dress our lovely women in
‘Twas worth the price
And when we couldn’t get potatoes
You gave us rice
We mix chop suey with your chop sticks
You’ve taught us quite a few tricks
We never knew
We take our hats off to one thing we’ve seen
Your laundries keep our country clean
Grace Tjan
May 24, 2009 Grace Tjan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, china, 2009
Ever since I picked up the condensed, popular version of Needham's book years ago, I've been curious about the man who wrote it. Now Simon Winchester provides us with the biography of the fascinating man behind the book, an eccentric Cambridge Don of prodigious intellect, an uncritical China lover, a playboy who spent most of his life in a menage a trois with his wife and mistress, as well as a comitted Catholic and socialist. The most interesting part of the book is the section describing Needh ...more
Beth Cato
I read this for research purposes, but I soon discovered a deeply personal element to connect me to the book: Joseph Needham first ventured to China by traveling over "the Hump" to Kunming during the same period when my grandpa served there during World War II. This delighted me. As Needham explored China and fell more deeply in love with the place, I couldn't help but think of my grandpa and wonder if he experienced many of the same things.

Needham was quite a quirky individual. A leftist nudist
carl  theaker
Nov 12, 2015 carl theaker rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ww2, history

A history professor friend of mine gave me this book, as he'd
received 2 copies, with the intro that he had no interest
in the history of China, much less the history of technology
in China, yet he found it fascinating.

Author Winchester does indeed tell a good tale, I'm certain
he could write an interesting yarn about grass growing. The
subject here though is the eccentric, brilliant, Cambridge
smartypants Joseph Needham, a fellow who picks up languages like
the average person does groceries.

May 15, 2013 S. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: hookah, cheshire
hmmm amazon has brought back their Big Deal, 500 ebooks at 85% off, and one can't go very wrong getting a big-6 published (Harper Collins, in this case) non-fiction history work at 1.99. well, it's 316 pages, less the 20% of the book that is the "searchable index" so popular to include with ebooks (obvious marketing trick, since most ebook readers permit searches in any case). I forgive. 250 pages at 1.99 is still less than .01c a page. the penny dreadful returns!

there's already a pretty profess
Feb 18, 2012 Vesna rated it liked it
A book about a man that wrote a book doesn't exactly sound like a formula for an entertaining work but Winchester pulls it off. It tells the story of Joseph Needham who spent his 90something years writing the definitive history of Science & Civilisation in China which he typed with 2 fingers. While it does read like a pop history book and has been consequently criticised on those grounds, it does filter a huge amount of information to a layman like myself. The fact remains that here is the s ...more
Jul 25, 2015 Keryn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is hard work, but as with most things in life, when you put in the effort it is usually rewarded. It was our Goodreads book club selection and so I decided to give it a try, though I could only find a copy online and so I purchased the audible version. It is indeed a remarkable story, and one that needs to be known, as there is so little understanding of China in the western world, and in South Africa that is no exception. So one of the drivers to read this book was curiosity, and if y ...more
May 22, 2010 Leslie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, asian
Well, this was a very interesting subject and the writing was fine except for weird editing laziness where he kept introducing a bit of information like it wasn't already introduced. The book was enjoyable except for this strange feeling where I felt like the writer was afraid to just say something so passed it off quite passively like it was an afterthought or maybe a joke. Like he has these opinions he was too afraid to just say. Either say them or leave them out of what is supposed to be non- ...more
Apr 27, 2014 Mag rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, china, asia
A story of an eccentric English scientist, Joseph Needham, who fell in love with China, having fallen in love with a female Chinese scientist first. He got interested in Chinese scientific achievements, and in 1942 he organized a rescue expedition to help Chinese scientists survive the hard times of the Japanese invasion. From the moment of his landing in Chungking, he found himself mesmerized with Chinese ways of doing things and their vast and ancient scientific knowledge. His stay expanded fr ...more
Jim Fonseca
Sep 08, 2013 Jim Fonseca rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A biography of Joseph Needham. One of the ancients said a full life, like a full day, is long enough. When Needham died in his early 90's, two days after he came to work his usual full day in the library, he went to a long-deserved rest. He was the author (and is some cases co-author or organizer) of the 20-plus volumes of Science and Civilization in China, a work of such magnitude that it has been compared to the OED. The work, published between 1954 and 2008 is still in print, and it has has b ...more
Joshua Rigsby
May 08, 2014 Joshua Rigsby rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: for-fun-modern
This book follows the life of the eccentric Cambridge professor Joseph Needham as he becomes enraptured by the intellectual history of China. Needham was a fascinating character to say the least. A committed nudist and Morris dancer, a polyglot and a dogged researcher, it would be difficult to find his equal in any epoch of history. The research and discoveries he made about the intellectual advancements of the Chinese are still being mined to this day.

Simon Winchester does well with this story
Jan 24, 2010 Rogier rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well it turns out that the biography of the man behind Cambridge's endlessly massive publications on Chinese Science and Civilisation (, is almost as fascinating as that book series itself. This is one of those books that one cannot put down. I ended up reading it from cover to cover without cease, which is a rare experience. More often I take 10 years to finish any one book. I seem to prefer reading in spurts. But this book is a page turner.

One of the ma
Lee Granas
Apr 04, 2015 Lee Granas rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a cool book to read after spending 3 weeks in China. I really enjoyed learning so much about life in England in the 1930s and 40s, and it was fascinating to see so many things that we think of as modern and edgy today (polyamory, nudity, etc) being practiced back then at Cambridge. I learned a ton from this book! It's amazing how much was happening between Japan and China in WWII that I didn't realize. It's also amazing how adventurous the protagonist was. I really liked the Rewi Alley ...more
Erik Graff
Sep 15, 2015 Erik Graff rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Needham & history of technology fans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: biography
Having a copy of one volume of Needham's Science and Civilisation in China, a friend intrigued by Needham himself and a familiarity with the author, I picked this up, used, at a local bookstore.

Like The Professor and the Madman, The Man Who Loved China is a light romp through several topics, namely, Joseph Needham's life, his great publishing project and the scientific and technological accomplishments of the Chinese before ca. 1500. It is, however, primarily an entertaining biography of a quirk
Oct 22, 2014 Charles rated it really liked it
A well written account of a truly astonishing man's life. Joseph Needham's intellectual curiosity and zest for life is infectious, even as his story is told through a third party. After making momentous achievements as a young man at Cambridge, Needham falls in love with China and sets about dedicatedly learning the language and culture that would shape his future.

Sent to China in 1943 he documents extraordinary scientific and historical finds, that would later make up his highly acclaimed publ
Dave Gaston
Every book Simon Winchester writes I’ll read. He is my favorite nerdy writer and I’m charmed by his technique, intelligence and his prigish dry wit. I also love his impeccable proper English. His active use of an expanded vocabulary challenges the mundane, not to mention a challenge to my own limited vocabulary. China was a little lighter than his earliest pursuit, not quite the manic deep dive expressed in, “The Professor and the Madman.” Winchester continues to highlight obscure (and quirky) s ...more
Steve Greenleaf
Feb 09, 2015 Steve Greenleaf rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: hx, china
Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China tells the story of an eccentric English biochemist who, through the gateway of a love affair with Chinese student, traveled to China and fell in love with Chinese civilization. Winchester is an accomplished and widely praised storyteller, and in this book he plies his trade well. The subject of his book made his task easier. The man who loved China was Joseph Needham. By his early 20s, Needham had established himself as a scientific genius with a broad, ...more
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Simon Winchester, OBE, is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster who resides in the United States. Through his career at The Guardian, Winchester covered numerous significant events including Bloody Sunday and the Watergate Scandal. As an author, Simon Winchester has written or contributed to over a dozen nonfiction books and authored one novel, and his articles appear in several travel publ ...more
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