I bought my first volume of Joseph Needham’s monumental series, Science and Civilisation in China, from a street vendor in Rangoon in 1976. How Volume IV, Part 1 (Physics) got to Burma is anyone’s guess. Several years into my training as a sinologist by then, I knew that Needham’s books defined the history of Chinese science, and that they could be read for pleasure as well as profit. I also knew that I would never have another chance at a volume of SCC for £2. It sits today on my bookshelf alongside the seventeen of its siblings that I have managed to acquire in the intervening years.
To write the life of Joseph Needham, Simon Winchester chose a different point of entry into SCC. Rather than pick up a thematic volume, he started from the series finale, Volume VII, Part 2 (The Social Background). There he found the long list of Chinese scientific ‘firsts’ that Needham compiled