Saturday, September 3, 2011

The day I met a famous man

Now then, where was I. Pondering Chou En Lai not having said that it was too soon to assess the impact of the French Revolution.
This led my thoughts to the great antiquity of Chinese civilisation, and to gunpowder, printing, and the magnetic compass. Early in the 17th century the English scientist Francis Bacon made the cogent observation that his modern world was distinguished from the ancient one by those three key inventions. Whilst to Bacon the origins of each were obscure, the fact is, all three came from China.

This was unearthed by the Cambridge scholar Joseph Needham, who found also that the stirrup, chains and chain drives, suspension bridges, canals with lock gates, blast furnaces, wheelbarrows, toilet paper, playing cards, kites, inoculation, chess, and an accurate value for π were all invented in China. Not to mention porcelain and silk.

The Needham Question

Joseph Needham - dating I suppose
from around the time I met him
(Needham Research Institute)
This prompts the question, how come modern science and technology developed in Europe, when China seemed so much better placed to achieve it? That’s the Needham Question; something I first came across 5 years ago thanks to BBC's In Our Time.

I met Joseph Needham briefly in 1971. He must have been 70 at the time, and was Master of Caius College, Cambridge. A lifelong Marxist, he had written me a letter of support and encouragement while I was in prison for the Garden House affair, and I called to thank him in the splendour of the Master’s Lodge. At the time I had little idea that he was a colossus in his field. Nor indeed what his field was. I can go further. I can say that while I was at Cambridge I had little idea altogether. What a waste when I think back on it.

For three years (minus one term spent elsewhere) there I was in the midst of a buzz of intellectual activity that has few parallels: and how did I use the time? Stuck to my courses of study that’s what (English literature at first, then 19th and 20th century history). And punted on the river. And yes, attended a demo. I never even visited Ely Cathedral for heavens sake. Actually it’s worse. I don’t remember visiting King’s College Chapel. And I could see it every morning when I got up, 300 yards from my window. It’s truly scandalous.

(I did see some films though, must wrack my brains for them sometime.)

Wasted on the young

All this came back to me a few years ago when I attended a course of lectures at University College Cork on science and society. The lectures were compulsory for humanities undergraduates. As each lecture ended the students clapped their notebooks shut and rushed for the exits, whereupon I and a post-graduate law student by the name of Noel, the only ones not really meant to be there, would nip down to the front and importune the lecturer with questions sometimes for up to half an hour.

Truly education is wasted on the young.

Nowadays, to find this sort of stuff, I have an hour’s bus ride and a half hour walk to get to UCC. Back then, though in the thick of it, I was oblivious.

But I digress. What's the Needham Answer? Well there are several. The one that always seems to come to the top of the list is that in medieval and modern Europe, there were many competing élites. Whereas in China, there was just the emperor. A crucial consequence of this seems to be that Europe and not China sent out the voyages of discovery. Then there's glass. Glass is essential to scientific experiments and observations. By an accident of history, the Chinese failed to produce it. And whilst the Chinese invented stuff, they weren't interested in scientific enquiry for its own sake. This ultimately held them back.

Finally, by cruel irony, the printing press, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass had a huge impact on Europe precisely because they burst suddenly and disruptively on to the European scene; by contrast, their adoption in China was gradual, so less disruptive, and less of a spur to creativity, all due to being invented there.

I've elaborated on these reasons if you're interested. End of essay. A list of resources follows.


(1) An edition of In Our Time in October 2006 on China and The Needham Question.

(2) "The man who unveiled China", an essay by Simon Winchester. The strapline runs “An English biochemist single-handedly changed the West’s perception of China, revealing its past scientific glories and predicting more to come.” Appeared in Nature 24.7.08. 3 pages

(3) If that's too long, try these notes about Needham (1 page)

(4) The Needham Research Institute, Cambridge

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Can't say fairer than that

Here’s the best joke from the Edinburgh Fringe, widely reported on 25th August.

I needed a password 8 characters long, so I chose Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

No I don’t think so either. We have Nick Helm to thank for that one, pictured. The prize was awarded by somebody or something named Dave. Here's a better one from BBC sports correspondent Gary Richardson who came on air on the Today programme immediately after this item.

A man went to the doctor and said I need speech therapy, I'm having trouble with my F’s and my T’s.

Doctor : You can't say fairer than that!

A couple of things to say about these jokes. Firstly, they have a common feature, namely each depends on the absence of speech marks around the operative phrase. Secondly, in the doctor joke, why did a man go to the doctor? Would it be better to say a patient or even a woman? No it wouldn't, imho. This really is an occasion where it’s better to be politically incorrect. Anything else distracts from the joke.