Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Salon: Bomb, Book and Compass by Simon Winchester

Since I only got half way through this book last weekend I am going to try and finish it today. It's a sultry day, too hot to do anything much, and I am a bit too frazzled to attempt to do any more of my editing job so I am going to sit back and relax with this book - which I am going to review properly for Bookmunch.

Needham seems to have been eccentric in so many ways - for instance he preferred to eat his toast black because he thought the carbon was good for his digestive system. He thought it mopped up impurities. It's an interesting idea, not without merit- Needham, after all was an eminent scientist - but I think that most people these days would say this was not a good idea due to the carcinogenic chemicals also produced when toast burns.

I am another couple more chapters through now and beginning to envy Needham. Because of his genius he seems always able to get his own way. He manipulates his travels through China to fulfill his curiosity about the place; he establishes his mistress in China, as well as his wife, because he feels he can't live without either of them - and thus, very understandably, attracts the ire of a colleague; and then, after he returns to his suite of rooms at Cambridge, the college's requirement for him to do any teaching his waived so he is free to write his books. But then it is important that he writes his books; because he is the only one able to do so. His aim is to write about the science and civilisation and China. It is a book not aimed at the Sinologists or general public but to educated people who are interested in the history of civilisation as a whole. It will fill an important gap.

The text that most stimulated the writing of the book was one that described the 1088AD technique to find south using a magnetised needle suspended on a piece of silk. This was a full century before a compass was described elsewhere in the world.

Another chapter and in this I have learnt that, in addition to the compass, the Chinese invented the following: various sorts of complicated bridges, wrought iron, the wheebarrow, the fishing reel, the sternport rudder, the umbrella, the set of gimbals (used to keep things like compasses upright at sea), the spinning wheel, the kite, callipers, automated figurines, chain pump irrigation, stirrups, playing cards, fine porcelain, chess, tuned drums, and, maybe most important of all, in the sixth century, perfumed toilet paper that was both soft and strong. It has been in demand ever since.


Blogger Jud said...

Too hot? What is the temperature in your part of the UK today?

Sun Jun 14, 05:39:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Well, Jud, I expect most people in the world would call it merely temperate, but the thermometer at my desk, at 17.47 is registering 26.7 Celcius.

I have a very narrow range of operating temperatures. Outside this I am unable to function :-)

Sun Jun 14, 05:49:00 pm  
Blogger BarbaraS said...

You know I seem to recall that Ernest Gebler liked his toast black too, but I'm not sure I can remember if it was for the same reasons. Found that in Carlo Gebler's powerful memoir about his father.

Sun Jun 14, 06:12:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I'd never heard of Ernest Gebler, Barbara, and Wikipedia only has one line about him - an Irish writer married to Edna O'Brien at one time. Are you familiar with his work?

Sun Jun 14, 06:28:00 pm  
Blogger Jud said...

I did the conversion and it seems to be about 80 Fahrenheit. yes, i would consider that to be "temperate", if warm. It is only 26 C here, now (about 6PM). It is cool because it has been raining. Now it is very, very humid. Yeah - humidity.

Fun stuff from the book.

Mon Jun 15, 12:19:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, Jud - I thought maybe you faced more extremes in climate than me. Humidity is important - we have lots of that too. Often 100% :-)

Mon Jun 15, 02:09:00 pm  

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