© Princeton University

Seldom can it be said that any one person ever managed  to change the outside world’s perception of an entire nation, an entire people. But, beginning in 1954, Joseph Needham (1900–1995), a Cambridge biochemist, a figure dauntingly eccentric and brilliantly polymathic in equal measure, did just that. This account, drawn from his diaries and letters and the immense and extraordinary book he spent half a lifetime writing, is his remarkable story.

A graduate of Oxford University, Simon  Winchester began his career as a journalist in 1967 and has covered numerous stories for The Guardian and The Sunday Times, including the Ulster crisis, the creation of Bangladesh, the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos, the Watergate affair, the Jonestown massacre, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, and the Falklands War. He has worked as a free-lance writer for more than 20 years, contributing to Harper’s, Smithsonian, National Geographic, The Spectator, Granta, the New York Times, and The Atlantic, and publishing several best-selling books. He has written The River at the Center of the World, about China’s Yangtze River; the bestselling The Professor and the MadmanThe Fracture Zone: My Return to the Balkans, which tells the story of his journey from Austria to Turkey during the 1999 war in Kosovo; and The Map That Changed the World, about 19th-century geologist William Smith. In addition he is the author of the best-selling Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 and A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. His latest book is The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom (May 2008).