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June 19, 2011

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沈括 Shen Kuo (1031-1095) - China's great scientific mind

Shen Kuo was a great scientist, scholar and statesman in the early years of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). His talent extended into nearly every field of learning.

He was known as a gifted mathematician, astronomer, geologist, zoologist, botanist, agronomist, archaeologist, engineer and inventor. He was also a famous poet and musician. In addition, he served as a government official in many positions, including diplomat, finance minister and head of the Imperial Department of Astronomy.

However, above all, Shen was a great polymath scientist. The British sinologist, historian and biochemist Joseph Needham (1900¨C95) once praised Shen as ?°one of the greatest scientific minds in the Chinese history.?±

Born in today?ˉs Hangzhou, capital of east China?ˉs Zhejiang Province, Shen was a boy of insatiable curiosity, who was interested in everything around him.

One day, when he was reciting poems of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) in front of his mother, he suddenly stopped after reading out the two lines: ?°When flowers around us are all gone in April, the peach flower in the mountain temple has just begun to bloom.?±

The boy asked his mother: ?°Why would the flowers in the mountain begin to bloom only after the flowers on the ground have withered??± His mother, knowing very well her son?ˉs inquisitive nature, told him to find out by himself.

So, the next April, when the peach flower in the courtyard had gone, Shen and several of his peers went to climb a mountain nearby. Halfway up the mountain, the boys saw peach flower in full blossom. Since they had already shed their winter clothes, the boys felt a bit chilly in the mountain wind. Shen suddenly realized that it was the cooler temperature on the mountain that delayed the blooming of the flowers there.

Since that day, Shen?ˉs strong interest in meteorology never waned for the rest of his life.

When he was young, Shen traveled to many parts of the country and studied arduously the plants, fossils, rivers, mountains, weather, local engineering projects and astronomical phenomena. He also conducted numerous experiments to test his discoveries and theories.

For instance, he spent more than three years and drew more than 200 sketches before he finally created the concept of true north. He noted that compasses pointed to the magnetic north pole, not true north. The rest of the world began to know this concept more than 400 years later.

After his retirement, Shen settled down in a place beside a rivulet and he named it the ?°Dream Brook Garden.?± There he began to write ?°Mengxi Bitan," which means literally "Brush-Pen Talks from the Dream Brook" and is also known as "Dream Pool Essays." It is a great science book consisting of 507 essays. They explore a wide range of scientific topics and explain many of his discoveries, inventions and theories as well as various phenomena about nature and science.

Shen was far ahead of his time in many fields. Apart from creating the concept of true north, he hypothesized that land was formed by the erosion of mountains and deposition of silt after observing fossil shells in a mountain range; he developed techniques that laid the foundation for spherical trigonometry; he introduced arithmetic progression of higher order; he explained the rainbow as a phenomenon of atmospheric refraction; and he probably was the first person to record the phenomenon of an unidentified flying object (UFO).

Shen's "Dream Pool Essays" is deemed as "a landmark in the history of science in China" by Joseph Needham and many others in the world.


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