I’ve been enjoying Tom Levenson’s “Diary of a Trade Book” series quite a bit (the latest post is on cover art), so when I say a stack of copies of Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist at the bookstore the other day, I snapped one up.

As the title suggests, it’s a little like CSI: London 1697, with a good deal of detail about how Newton built a court case against the notorious “coiner” and con man William Chaloner, who earned Newton’s personal enmity by not only passing fake coins, but by spreading stories of incompetence and corruption in the Royal Mint. In a larger sense, though, the book is intended to change the popular perception of Newton:

Isaac Newton? The founder of modern science; the man recognized by his contemporaries– and ever since– as the greatest natural philosopher the world has ever seen? What had the man who had brought order to the cosmos to do with crime and punishment, the flash world of London’s gin houses and tenements, bad money and worse faith?

Isaac Newton’s first career, the only one most people remember, lasted thirty-five years. Throughout that period, he was a seemingly permanent fixture at Trinity College, Cambridge– first as a student, next as a fellow, and finally as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. But in 1696 Newton came to London to take up the post of Warden of the Royal Mint. By law and tradition, the position required him to protect the King’s currency, which meant he was supposed to deter or capture anyone who dared clip or counterfeit it. In practice, that made him a policeman– or rather, a criminal investigator, interrogator, and prosecutor rolled into one.

A more surprising candidate for the job would be hard to imagine. Newton, in both popular memory and the haigography of his own time, did not get his hands dirty. He did not so much live as think– and he thought in realms far above those reached by ordinary minds.

Armed with ample evidence from the various Newton archives– the man’s life is really exhaustively documented, thanks in large part to his own journal-keeping– Levenson sets out to show us a Newton who did indeed get his hands dirty. Both in his scientific and alchemical pursuits (he built all his own instruments, and conducted all his experiments himself), and as Warden of the Mint (where he built and prosecuted the case against Chaloner almost by himself), he did not shy from doing any unpleasant task that was needed to achieve success.

My only prior encounter with this side of Newton’s career was in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World), where the “King of the Vagabonds,” Jack Shaftoe, serves as a sort of Chaloner turned up to 11. Levenson’s version of the story is about a tenth of the length, and contains considerably less swashbuckling, but it’s not a dry and boring history of account books and court records. The storytelling is brisk and engaging, and Levenson does a terrific job of fleshing out the key events.

The book is also excellent in setting the political and historical scene. Levenson quickly outlines the major events in and around England during Newton’s lifetime, and explains how a variety of forces came together to produce a unique crisis just at the time when Newton took over the Mint. He combines this with a short but compelling biography of Newton to show how as improbable as it may have seemed, Newton was actually the perfect man to take charge of these operations. There are also compact but excellent descriptions of how the city and society of Newton’s London was unlike what we’re used to thinking of as the historical London, and how this presented challenges and opportunities for Newton’s pursuit of Chaloner.

This is a short book, and a quick read– I fit it in around bouts of baby-wrangling Friday and Saturday– but it packs a lot of material into 250 pages. Levenson does a great job painting a picture of London, Chaloner (who had balls Stephen Colbert would envy), and especially Newton. This is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it.

Comments

  1. #1 Zeno
    July 5, 2009

    I just picked up the book myself and am looking forward to reading about Newton’s adventures as Master of the Mint. As someone who has done a lot of reading in math and science, I wasn’t under the illusion that Newton had been simply a pure theoretician who sat quietly in his office scribbling out calculations on sheafs of parchment. His penchant for alchemy and theology are well known to those who pay attention.

    On the other hand, you can fool most of the people most of the time, and Dan Brown thought it added a dash of credibility to his fictional DaVinci Code to include Isaac Newton on the list of masters of the Priory of Sion. Ha! Suggesting that the misogynistic Newton might have participated in the hieros gamos sex rites is about as absurd as the notion that the gay DaVinci could have managed it. [Link]

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