In This Review

Thread of the Silkworm
Thread of the Silkworm
By Iris Chang
329 pp, BasicBooks, 1995

Chang’s book tells the fascinating biography of Tsien Hsue-shen, a brilliant Chinese scientist who played a central role in American rocket and space science during World War II and its immediate aftermath, returned to China in the 1950s, and played a central role in that country’s missile programs. Chang, a journalist fluent in Chinese, has carefully tapped a wide array of sources. She is sympathetic to Tsien’s travails in the darkest days of the Cold War, when because of suspicions of communist leanings he was suddenly deprived of his American security clearances. But she remains dispassionate in her description of Tsien’s thorough accommodation of the monstrosities of Mao’s China, down to his recent support of the Tiananmen massacre. The tale has much to say about America’s openness and fearfulness in the 1940s and early 1950s, and the mood and drive of China in the grip of totalitarian rule. But this is ultimately a story of individual pride and passionate scientific inquiry. With considerable delicacy, the author reveals the price a scientist may pay for vanity when immersed in a political world he understands less than he thinks.