Two Winchester Books

Based on how much I enjoyed “The Professor and The Madman”, I have read two more books by Simon Winchester in the past few months: “The Map that Changed the World” and “The Man Who Loved China”. Both continue the theme of tracing the life of a researcher who embarks on an immense project cataloging some portion of human knowledge in minute and exhaustive detail, often to their own personal detrement along the way.
“The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology” covers the creation of an exhaustive geological map of England and, along with it, a shift in the culture of geological research. The trend moved away from geology as the collection of fossils and generally being a hobby for the upper class, towards what, from the outside, seems like the birth of geology as a science. While the book looks at the very data-driven processes that Smith uses to begin to assemble his exhaustive maps it also explores who these new geologists are and how their background and their funding sources put them in conflict with the tradition of geology in place in England in the early 1800s. Smith’s work is largely funded by piggy backing on his paid work as a surveyer, primarily for planning England’s growing canal system. A combination of financial mismanagement on his part and hostility from the British Geological Society led Smith into debtor’s prison and it was only later in his life that his contributions to the field were recognized.
“The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom” has some similiar themes. It follows the life of Joseph Needham as he moves from being an accomplished biological researcher to traveling throughout China in the early 1940s, officially as a scientific liason between Britain and China but personally to collect information for a book about the science and technology of China. His goal, which he sticks to for decades, is to collect evidence of the array of scientific and technological discoveries that actually originated in China, to restore China’s deserved intellectual respect for these accomplishments, and to ultimately explain why, after being ahead of the rest of the world for so long, it seemed that China had stopped moving forward at the same time that the Renaissance pushed the western world forward in leaps and bounds. The end result is a set of over twenty-four volumes that is still being expanded based on his research. Along the way, Needham’s socialist convictions and political naivite pull him out of favor in most circles but, like Smith, his awesome academic achievement ultimately brings him back into his former prominence.
If you like Winchester’s style, you’ll like these books – there is a reasonable coverage of the content of the research but the main focus is on the people performing that research and the various pressures on them as they attempt to accomplish unimaginably complex works. Out of these two books, Needham is the more colorful character, with his extensive travels and his multitude of affairs. One also feels less sorry for his hardships since it seems that they might have been avoided if he didn’t think quite so well of himself and assume that others would do the same. Smith falls on the other side of the spectrum, being equally passionate about his project but less assured he will be granted the opportunity to succeed.
Ultimately, Winchester’s books celebrate people with a vision so immense and world-changing that their success required a life-long commitment and, ultimately, the ability to convince at least one or two other people to make the project their life’s work as well. If you have ever balked at the daunting task of organizing a semester (or year, or five’s…) worth of research into a paper or article or book, these accounts will make you feel chagrined at the relative ease of your task to the hurdles before Smith and Needham. In a significant part these stories can also be read as accounts of people who were faced with immense amounts of information and an intuition that there must be a pattern hidden in there that they could draw out which would make sense of each of the individual facts – in one case a map of our geological history and in the other a cataloging of a lost piece of our global history of science.

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