Mind & Matter


The Needham Question

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Joseph Needham in his Cambridge laboratory.


After my recent travels to China, I became acquainted with the concept of “the Needham question.” Joseph Needham was an eminent British scholar who embarked upon several remarkable adventures in China during and after World War II in search for clues to China’s many historic scientific achievements. Chronicled by Simon Winchester in his book, The Man Who Loved China, Needham’s controversial question probes the causes for China’s decline from its position as the most technologically advanced civilization on the planet around 1500 A.D.

Although Needham never answers this question—many scholars blame the xenophobia and introversion of the Ming dynasty for the transfer of scientific authority to the West—his predictions that China will reclaim its global technological superiority are particularly resonant. Winchester describes a sign posted in the fast-growing city of Jiuquan as an embodiment of Needham’s sentiment towards contemporary China: “Without Haste. Without Fear. We Conquer the World.” Winchester adds, “After its 5,000 years of patient waiting, watching, and learning, this is at last China’s appointed time.”




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.