Winchester ropes in the reader with a graphic prologue. An obviously important man -- Needham -- is flown into Chongqing, the sweltering, overcrowded, battle-fatigued capital of China in 1943. He has a commission from his government stating that the man who accepts it "must be ready for anything." It's also clear that the arrival of this tall, mysterious figure portends more than the official business of the Crown. Needham is realizing a personal dream.
It is the story of a brilliant, eccentric English scientist who falls in love with China -- first by means of a female Chinese colleague (a relationship that his wife tolerates, since theirs was an open marriage), then through the mysterious language of the "Middle Kingdom" (a language without an alphabet), and finally by traveling its length and breadth on a goodwill mission as a diplomat and scientist.
He was driven by what would later be called "the Needham question": Why, since China was the birthplace of so many technological and scientific advancements, did this vast country remain so backward for so long? His official mission was to shore up the intellectual institutions of a country at war with the Japanese, who had maliciously targeted Chinese universities for destruction. His personal mission -- understanding the heartbeat of this sprawling, ancient empire -- would eventually fill no less than 15,000 pages in what is regarded, even today, as the preeminent and definitive work in the Western world on China: Science and Civilization in China.
Winchester's biography of Needham -- socialist, skirt-chaser and tireless academic -- is both engaging and educational. It's a fast-paced and rewarding read.