July 11, 2008

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Filed under: China,culture,east-west — Kim @ 3:41 pm

Good title? I think so and I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which is a popular science work by the travel writer Bill Bryson. As the title suggests, it’s a book about life, the universe and everything…from the Big Bang to the ascendancy of Homo sapiens.

As the man himself says, “This is a book about how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.” It has potted histories of cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry, physics, and more, and some greatly entertaining snippets about the great and the good of the scientific community. How about this one from the life of Charles Darwin? Apparently after coming back from his famous voyage on the Beagle, Darwin opted to let his notes and observations (later to become The Origin of Species) sit in a draw for almost ten years instead of publishing them, as he knew they were bound to cause a storm. What did he do during those years?

Darwin fathered ten children and devoted nearly eight years to writing an exhaustive opus on barnacles (‘I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before,’ he sighed, understandably, upon the work’s conclusion).
(p467)

Bill Bryson is a funny man, and a deservedly popular writer. “A Brief History of Almost Everything” is a bit of a departure from his normal genre of travel writing, but it works very well and deserves all the hyperbole on the blurb, and I couldn’t put it down. Well, actually I could. I put it down when I finished it. I’m not still clutching it in my clammy mitts, you understand? But when I had finished it and had thought a bit about it and was about to allow it to slip from the front of my focus to let my back brain masticate on it in a more leisurely fashion…something struck me. It’s a well known affliction for the long term expat: almost everything you read or hear or experience that is non-Chinese sooner or later gets put through the “and what does this say about China?” processor.

And I realised that Old Billy Boy’s Big Boffins Book has almost nothing about China in it. No Chinese names, no Chinese scientists mentioned, and not even any mention of compasses or paper or gunpowder! And no Indians or Indonesians or Thais or Japanese come to that.

The story in this history is of a succession of clever westerners wrestling with all the problems and questions that beset the curious, and triumphantly solving almost all of them. As befits the subject matter, Bryson is more concerned with what gets solved than with who solves it, but he does have a knack for the bringing to life the personalities behind the science too…and in his account they are all westerners.

There are a couple of references to China, but they are rather unflattering ones. There’s a brief mention that as China is now opening up, western scientists are at last able to travel unimpeded and do some proper research on dinosaur remains. Here’s the other one:

In China, a gifted Canadian amateur named Davidson Black began to poke around at a place called Dragon Bone Hill, which was locally famous as a hunting ground for old bones. Unfortunately, rather than preserving the bones for study, the Chinese ground them up to make medicines. We can only guess how many priceless Homo erectus bones ended up as a sort of Chinese equivalent of Beecham’s powder. The site had been much denuded by the time Black arrived, but he found a single fossilized molar and on the basis of that alone quite brilliantly announced the discovery of Sinanthropus pekinensis, which quickly became known as Peking Man. (page 527)

Well, if I were a Chinese nationalist reading that, I might be forgiven for sniffing out some condescension. A not completely unfair paraphrase of the above passage might run as follows:

The silly old Chinese were buggering everything up with their blundering half-baked beliefs, but luckily a proper western scientist got there in the nick of time and made a great discovery for the benefit of the enlightened scientific community…which doesn’t include Chinese by the way!

Anyways, it’s not so much what Bryson may or may not be implying about China, it’s the omissions that are more serious, I think. As the recent piece over at Frog in a Well shows all too well, China contributed a lot to scientific understanding over the years, and although this didn’t translate into a modern scientific/industrial revolution it is a big gap if you claim to be writing a history of nearly everything. Though to be fair, he did say nearly everything!

There was a time when the Chinese were considered to be scientific trailblazers and here is a nice quote from a review of a recent book about the life of Joseph Needham “The Man Who Loved China” , a book that is getting a fair bit of attention in the English language Chinese blogosphere these days.

“Four thousand years ago, when we couldn’t even read, the Chinese knew all the absolutely useful things we boast about today,” wrote French philosophe Voltaire in 1764. But if today in the West we widely acknowledge those words to be true, that’s largely due to an Englishman.

That “largely due to an Englishman” sounds a bit smug, doesn’t it? And did he have to mention that Voltaire is French, it’s kind of superfluous.

Well, anyhoo, Needham was he of the notorious “Needham question”, namely “Why didn’t the Chinese beat Europeans to the Scientific Revolution?” especially since they led the field for so long. My guess is that the answer lies in an unwillingness to learn from other nations and too much thought-policing by strict authorities. But the Chinese are a competitive bunch these days, and hungry for scientific knowledge and international prestige, and you gotta wonder if they’ll start being innovative and trailblazing once again. One thing is for sure, the first Chinese to win a Nobel for science is going to be a MEGASTAR.

But that kind of nationalistic fretting and pettiness really should be beside the point. Science, among other things, should help us to overcome our nationalistic blinkers and celebrate the achievements of Homo sapiens and not just Caucasian man, or Sinanthropus pekinensis. When I was reading “A Short History” I forgot that I was living in China and the “what does this mean for China” question only occurred to me after I’d put the book down. And that is as it should be, basically. Although it’s interesting to compare cultures and to look at science from different angles, nationality is insignificant whenever we start to consider the big picture.

1 Comment

  1. […] – bookmarked by 1 members originally found by katdennings on July 25, 2008 A Short History of Nearly Everything http://eastweststation.com/blog/2008/07/11/a-short-history-of-nearly-everything/ – bookmarked by 2 […]

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