Book Review: The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester (Harper Perennial)
The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom Book Cover The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
Simon Winchester
Biography & Autobiography
Harper Perennial
April 28, 2009
Paperback
352

In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham—the brilliant Cambridge scientist, freethinking intellectual, and practicing nudist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, once the world's most technologically advanced country.

Winchester really is a magnificent writer. Although I am a bigger fan of some of his other works, this certainly fits well into the rest of his life’s opus. Somehow he manages to cover bits of science, technology, philosophy, history, (his love) geology, archaeology, culture, politics and even uses his flair for travel writing with great ethos and pathos to tell an interesting story.

Aside from the breadth of topics he covers while telling the story of one man’s life’s work, he writes about and discusses topics which should be part of everyone’s personal cultural knowledge. As a small example, he makes mention of one of the real life archaeologists who served as a model for Indiana Jones – though sadly he only makes the direct connection in a footnote which many may not likely read.

Though I had originally picked up the book out of general curiosity (not to diminish the fact that I’m on a quest to read every word Winchester has written), I find that it also neatly fits into providing some spectacular background on the concept of “Big History” (see Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History) as it relates to China’s place in the world. In particular “Needham’s question” (briefly: Why, given China’s illustrious past, did modern science not develop there after the 1500’s?) turned around becomes a interesting illustration on the course of human history and the rises and falls of cultures and societies since the Holocene.

For those who may miss the significance, I was particularly impressed with the overall literary power imbued to the book by the use of the book-ended contrasts of Needham’s Chongqing at the opening of the work and modern day Chongqing at the close. This is one of the few times that the mechanics behind how Winchester, the master of telling often non-linear stories, has been patently obvious to me. I hope one day to unravel all of his other secrets. I can only imagine that in his heavy research of his topics, he somehow internally sees the ultimately magical ways in which he will present the information.

I will note that, in contrast to some of his past works, this one had some better physical maps and photos to go along with the text, although I was highly disappointed in their unusable presentation in the e-book version of the book. (Higher dpi versions would have gone a long way, particularly with the ability to zoom in on them in most e-readers.) For those unfortunate enough to have the e-book copy, I commend picking up a physical copy of the book for better interpretations of the photos and maps included.

Finally, perhaps for Winchester’s benefit, I’ll note that typically I would give this book a full five stars in comparing it will all others, but I’m comparing it only with Winchester’s other works and, so it stands at four, and that only because there isn’t the ability to give tenths or hundredths.

Reading Progress
  • 12/17/09 marked as: want to read; “Purchased copy from Amazon.com.”
  • 12/27/09 Purchased copy from Amazon.com.
  • 02/05/10 started reading
  • 04/24/10 started reading again
  • 04/24/2010 8.81% done or on page 31 of 316; “Simon Winchester has such a lovely writing style and grasp of language. I’m depressed that I’ve finished reading most of his works.”
  • 12/03/12 started reading again from the beginning
  • 12/03/2012 09.0% done
  • 12/10/2012 20.0% done
  • 12/17/2012 30.0% done
  • 12/20/2012 40.0% done
  • 12/31/12 Finished book

Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia

John Hay, America’s secretary of state at the turn of the twentieth century, remarked in 1899 that China was now the “storm center of the world,” and that whoever took the time and trouble to understand “this mighty empire” would have “a key to politics for the next five centuries.”

Highlight (blue) – Location XXX
China – storm center of the world;
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Guide to highlight colors

Yellow–general highlights and highlights which don’t fit under another category below
Orange–Vocabulary word; interesting and/or rare word
Green–Reference to read
Blue–Interesting Quote
Gray–Typography Problem
Red–Example to work through

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Book Review: Werner Loewenstein’s “The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life”

The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life by Werner R. Loewenstein

Though there is a paucity of equations, particularly on the information theoretic side, Loewenstein does a fantastic job of discussing the theory and philosophy of what is going on in the overlapping fields of information theory and microbiology. (I will note that it is commonly held wisdom within publishing, particularly for books for the broader public, that the number of equations in a text is inversely proportional to the number of sales and I’m sure this is the reason for the lack of mathematical substantiation which he could easily have supplied.)

The Touchstone of Life (Book Cover)

This is a much more specific and therefore much better – in my mind – book than John Avery’s Information Theory and Evolution which covers some similar ground. Loewenstein has a much better and more specific grasp of the material in my opinion. Those who feel overwhelmed by Loewenstein may prefer to take a step back to Avery’s more facile presentation.

Loewenstein has a deft ability to describe what is going on and give both an up-close view with many examples as well as a spectacular view of the broader picture – something which is often missing in general science books of this sort. Readers with no mathematical or microbiology background can benefit from it as much as those with more experience.

One thing which sets it apart from much of its competition, even in the broader general science area of non-fiction, is that the author has a quirky but adept ability to add some flowery language and analogy to clarify his points. Though many will find this off-putting, it really does add some additional flavor to what might be dry and dull explication to many. His range of background knowledge, philosophy and vocabulary are second only (and possibly even on par or exceeding in some cases) that of Simon Winchester.

I’d highly recommend this book to people prior to their academic studies of biochemistry or molecular cell biology or to budding biomedical engineers prior to their junior year of study. I truly wish I had read this in 1994 myself, but alas it didn’t exist until a few years after. I lament that I hadn’t picked it up and been able to read it thoroughly until now.

For my part, his drastically differing viewpoint of the way in which biology should be viewed moving forward, is spot on. I am firmly a member of this new “school”. His final chapter on this concept is truly illuminating from a philosophical and theoretical view and I encourage people to read it first instead of last.

I’ll also note briefly that I’ve seen some reviews of this book which make mention of creationism or intelligent design and whether or not proponents of those philosophies feel that Loewenstein’s work here supports them or not, particularly since Loewenstein appeared on a panel with Dembski once. I will state for those who take a purely scientific viewpoint of things, that this book is written in full support of evolution and microbiology and doesn’t use the concept of “information” to muddy the waters the way many ID arguments are typically made.

Original review posted to GoodReads.com on 9/4/12

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