On Joseph Needham’s
Science and Civilization in China

Professor Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China is the supreme textbook on the history of science and technology in China. 李约瑟教授所著, 登峰造极, 空前绝后教科书也.

It traces and documents inventions and theories of Chinese science and technology in Chinese history, establishes and credits their priority often compared with Western science and technology. For example, the theory of the circulation of blood in the human body predated Davy. The meridians in Chinese acupuncture are even more ancient, unique, and still mysterious. We all know about the priority of paper, printing, Chinese gunpowder and the rockets of firework already.

Professor Needham’s book has restored some self-esteem to the Chinese people in the face of present day fantastic Western science technology. The Chinese people are rightly grateful to him. May the heavens bless him and his descendents!

Alas, textbook science is dead science, Chinese or Western! It is ‘standard’, up-to-date, authoritative, all ‘correct’ and white, like monuments, with no black ‘mistakes’. It is all cold and dead. 可惜教科书科学是死科学, 虽然是现代标准权威科学. 教科书只陈列当代权威认可的理论, 像纪念碑, 都是白色的, 没有历代和当代争论反对的, ‘错误’ 的, ‘黑色’ 的理论. 是死科学.

Textbook science does not show what old problem the science is tackling, its trials and errors, its failures as well as successes, its depressions as well as elations, its birth and death. In short, it is not a living creature, not alive, but fixed, solid, hard, and dead. 教科书科学不告诉学生科学要解决什么老问题. 问题可能是一百年或者一千的老问题, 世代有新的理论, 推翻或修改旧的理论, 冲击竞争, 艰辛突破, 失败成功, 或存或亡, 有欢乐也有悲哀, 本来是活生生的, 可是都给教科书弄死了.

Such history is dead history. You see the science like a museum fossil or a skeleton. It may be big like a whale, or a dinosaur. Even if you have preserved its blood, the heart, and the lungs, the blood does not circulate and the lungs do not breathe. It is still a dead creature, a corpse, a ‘mummy’. 教科书的科学史是死历史, 像博物馆陈列化石或骨头, 虽然大若琼鱼或恐龙, 即使血肉心肺都保存了, 可是血不流动, 肺也不呼吸, 还是死的尸体, 而已.

It may be for show, just like a museum exhibit. It may be acknowledged, honoured, or even worshiped, but it is still dead. 其展览壮观, 博物院展览也. 观众赞赏, 甚至崇拜. 还是死的.

Is it possible to teach science living and breathing? Yes. And its history? Yes. School and university science and its history can both be living, breathing, interesting, fascinating, and even seductive. 学校讲授的科学可以有生命和呼吸吗? 可以. 科学史呢? 也可以. 中学大学讲授的科学与科学史的科学都可以有生命, 有呼吸, 有趣, 甚至诱惑, 迷人.

How? Ask Sir Karl Popper and his successor Professor Joseph Agassi. They have demonstrated how. 怎么样才可以这样呢? 您问卡尔朴耙爵士和艾格思教授吧. 他俩已经示范了.

Popper has written “Back to Pre-Socratics” , a history of science before Socrates. It is science alive and breathing, though thousands of years old. It shows the evolution of science solving urgent problems with competing conjectures, and refutations eliminating the weak theories. 朴耙写了, 是苏格拉底以前的科学历史, 写的是活生生的科学, 还在呼吸, 虽然已经是几千年那么老的科学. 写的是古代科学理论要解答的是什么问题, 不同的理论百花齐放, 互相竞争批评, 诉诸实验, 优胜劣败,世代演进.

Theories in science evolve like organic creatures, be they mice or whale, dinosaurs or virus. Non-textbook science and history of science can show the problem that started the hypotheses to meet the challenge, from generation to generation. Take Physics, for example. In physics, a big problem is the phenomena of motion. To the layman, there is so much motion in the world around him, from the cars to the stars. Is it a big chaos? Physics projects law and order to this chaos, imperfect but improving from generation to generation, solving the same problem of motion, more accurately and magnificently, travelling to outer space. I am reading the opening pages of Evolution of Physics: the Growth of Ideas from the Early Concepts to Relativity and Quantua , by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infred. My Physics stopped at grade 11, yet I understand these opening pages so far.

Agassi’s son Aaron, asking his father questions, has written The Continuing Revolution: A History of Physics from the Greeks to Einstein 艾格思的儿子艾尔侖也得到他父亲指导写了一本 .

Agassi himself has written Faraday as a Natural Philosopher , telling the story of the ‘ugly duckling’ Faraday’s ‘blood and tears’, frustrations and struggles, defeats and successes, and from poverty to honour, for his hypotheses, e.g. that the ether does not exist , often conflicted with the standard and authoritative theories of the day. When his hypothesis clashed with the theories of the physics giant of the age, Newton, of Faraday’s own country England, Faraday was in great trouble. Against Newton, Descartes in France and Leibniz in Germany had it easy, with their own country and people. 艾格思本人也写了一本 , 写法拉第出生贫穷, 在倫敦的贫民窟长大, 在本国的科学家学术界只是一只丑小鸭, 他的理论对抗当时物理学巨人牛敦的理论, 法拉第科学理论的竞争奋斗和学术生命都是有血有泪的, 有失败也有成功, 有悲哀也有荣誉. 同样是在物理学理论上对抗牛敦的理论, 在法国的笛卡儿和在德国的莱布莱兹在本国和本国人民中可容易得多.

Agassi has even written about how to write live history of science in his book Towards an Historiography of Science. 艾格思甚至写了一本, 教人如何写活生生的科学史.

Popper and Agassi write about science alive or live history of science, i.e. Western science. 朴耙和艾格思都写科学史. 里面的科学都是活生生的, 都是西方科学.

Neither Popper nor Agassi examined science in Chinese history. Professor Joseph Needham did. 朴耙和艾格思都没有研究中国科学史. 李约瑟教授就研究了.

Professor Needham’s Cambridge team of Chinese scholars have done the greatest research work in and constructed the greatest museum of historical Chinese science, as big and rich as the British Museum . It is the grandeur of a cemetery more magnificent than the terracotta of the Emperor of Qin. In this fantastic cemetery, you have the dinosaurs, tigers, buffalos, horses, snakes, cows, monkeys, birds, dogs, pigs, and mice of Chinese science—all dead. 李约瑟教授的一队剑桥大学华裔学者为中国科学史做了最伟大的研究, 写了最伟大的, 内容丰富多彩, 好象英国博物馆一样. 是一个辉煌的坟场, 比秦始皇帝坟墓还要壮观, 里面有中国历史上的科学鼠牛虎兔龙蛇马羊猴鸡犬豕, 都是死的.
Who will blow life into the exhibits in this museum: the dinosaurs, the whales, the butterflies, the flowers, etc. so that all the creatures will come to life, playing with one another, living, giving birth, and dying? 谁能够把生命气息喷进这中国科学博物馆的科学动物身体内, 叫它们都复活呢?

It will be resurrections.

Photos at The University of British Columbia, Canada, 24 July 1975. 一九七五年七月二十四日李约瑟教授摄与加拿大碧西省碧西大学的照片:
1. Professor Joseph Needham 李约瑟教授.
2. Professor Needham giving a lecture on the history of Chinese traditional medicine, pointing at the Chinese name for forbidden points in acupuncture. 李约瑟教授讲中国医学史, 指示针灸 一词.
3. Professor Joseph Needham and KWAN Lihuen. 本文作者关理煊请教李约瑟教授.
4. Professor Needham’s autograph. 李约瑟教授签名 .

KWAN Lihuen (LH Kwan)(关理煊)


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