Disclaimer: This is an original piece of writing, based on a post to my science blog but with expansion about the non-science aspects of Shen Kua's life. It is not plagiarized.
Shen Kua (also spelled Shen Kuo or Shen Gua) was an 11th century Chinese diplomat, administrator, scientist, and polymath. In many ways, he was far ahead of his time. Some of his more notable findings are as follows:
- He realized that compasses pointed to the magnetic north pole, not true north.
- He observed fossil shells in a mountain range far from the ocean and hypothesized that land was formed by erosion of mountains and deposition of silt.
- He found some fossil stems in Shenxi Province which he identified as bamboo shoots (actually horsetail ancestors), outside of the 11th century range of bamboo in that region, and inferred that past climates must have been different to allow their growth. Although his taxonomy was off, his conclusion led to paleoclimatologists Chaloner and Creber dubbing him the "father of palaeoclimatology" in a 1990 paper.(1)
- He both observed the planets and tried to explain their retrograde motions. Unlike the Greek astronomers, he did not assume that all planets moved in circular orbits, but rather hypothesized a "willow leaf" shaped motion.
Shen Kua was born in 1031 C.E. to Shen Chou, a government official, and his wife Hsu. All of Shen Kua's early education came from his mother. When he was about nine, Shen Kua began to move around the country with his father as Shen Chou was moved to new posts.
He took his first government post himself in 1054. He soon proved himself to be a competent and intelligent official with great initiative and was given a post at court in 1063, where he became one of a core group of reformers. In 1072, he became director of the Astronomy Bureau and was put in charge of establishing a new calendar. Although he set up an ambitious data-gathering program, incompetence among the employees and their falsification of data prevented the calendar from being as accurate as Shen Kua hoped.
In 1077, false charges of dishonest practices were brought against Shen Kua by a rival and he was sent to Shenxi Province. After some military victories, a Tangut attack led to defeat and Shen Kua was banished.
During his banishment, Shen Kua wrote most of his scientific works and continued his project to produce maps of all Chinese territory, which he also encoded in writing. Shen Kua knew that maps do not survive as well as books.
After six years of near-house arrest, Shen Kua was permitted to choose his own dwelling. He chose a property near Jiangsu (Zhenjiang), and called it Dream Brook. In 1086 he received a pardon, but spent the last seven years of his life at Dream Brook. Shen Kua died in 1095 C.E.
His 1088 book Meng Xi Bi Tan (Brush talks from Dream Brook or Dream Pool Essays), have been webbed by Project Gutenberg.(2) The book contains essays on mineralogy, erosion, sedimentation and uplift, mathematics, astronomy, metereology, music, calendars, cartography, geology, optics, and medicine.
Footnotes and References:
(1) Chaloner, W.G., and Creber, G.T. 1990. Do fossil plants give a climatic signal? in Journal of the Geological Society, London, vol. 147, p. 343-350.
Biography in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York 1970-1990).
Biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Martzloff, J.-C. 1997. A history of Chinese mathematics (Berlin-Heidelberg).
Needham, J. 1959. Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge).
Li, X.X. 1981. A Bibliography of Chinese Palaeobotany. Institute of Geology and Palaeontology (Academia Sinica, Nanjing).