Friday, June 13, 2008

The Index to a Cathedral of scholarship

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, china, history of science

One could read the book from front to back, like many another book. One could... but the book is really a mini-encyclopedia. It is suitable for dipping into, here and there, enjoying this morsel and that. The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery & Invention by Robert Temple is actually a popular-market product based on the massive, in-progress Science and Civilization in China series begun by Joseph Needham in 1954, and continuing since his death in 1995 under the direction of the Needham Research Institute. The project is roughly halfway complete.

Genius is happily complete, a large volume containing one hundred short articles, richly illustrated, in eleven subject areas. Author Temple had a number of aims, one being to show Chinese discoveries and inventions that long preceded their discovery or introduction in Europe. The following few give a taste of the whole:
  • Seismograph – Second Century. Of special interest to me with my Geological background. I knew of this one long ago: the inverted pendulum in a jar that jostled a ball from a dragon's mouth so it would fall into that of a frog below. The noise provided an alert to a distant quake, and the particular ball that fell gave an idea of its direction. The replica pictured above is in the Ancient Observatory in Beijing, and the balls are not in place.
  • Equal Temperament in Music – Sixteenth Century. J.S. Bach strongly promoted this idea, which makes the modern piano or organ possible, in the early 1700s, about 180 years after the principle's discovery in China and its almost immediate transmittal to the West (unlike many Chinese learnings). Few people can hear well enough to tell the difference between an instrument tuned in even temperament and one that is modally tuned, so modern (300 years modern) musicians get away with all sorts of musical shenanigans that you can't do in a "mean tuned" piano or a modal lute. [Personal note: Sawmill tuning on the 5-string banjo, and a number of other tunings used in Bluegrass music, and also shape-note singing practiced in some church congregations, are modal and sound quite unlike anything possible using even tuning!]
  • Masts and Sailing – Second Century. Westerners prior to the Twentieth Century, even those who saw Chinese junks, never did figure out how to stagger-mount the masts of sailing ships so the aft sails would not becalm the foresails. I don't know much about sailing, but a single photo of a junk, taken from directly aft, has been enough to let me see the principle.
  • Deep Drilling for Natural Gas – First Century BC. Another Geological first...prior to the birth of Christ, the Chinese developed techniques that allowed them to drill nearly to 1.5 kilometer depth for methane. The first "oilman" wore silk, not cowboy boots!

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