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Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist Paperback – April 12, 2010


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1 edition (April 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547336047
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547336046
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #430,396 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon.com Review

Product Description
In 1695, Isaac Newton--already renowned as the greatest mind of his age--made a surprising career change. He left quiet Cambridge, where he had lived for thirty years and made his earth-shattering discoveries, and moved to London to take up the post of Warden of His Majesty's Mint. Newton was preceded to the city by a genius of another kind, the budding criminal William Chaloner. Thanks to his preternatural skills as a counterfeiter, Chaloner was rapidly rising in London's highly competitive underworld, at a time when organized law enforcement was all but unknown and money in the modern sense was just coming into being. Then he crossed paths with the formidable new warden. In the courts and streets of London--and amid the tremors of a world being transformed by the ideas Newton himself had set in motion--the two played out an epic game of cat and mouse.



A Q&A with Thomas Levenson, Author of Newton and the Counterfeiter

Q: Why did you decide to write Newton and the Counterfeiter?

A: I first encountered the connection at the heart of Newton and the Counterfeiter when I was working on a very different project in the mid '90s. A long out of print book quoted from one of the few letters between my counterfeiter, William Chaloner, and Isaac Newton--and on reading it I wondered: what on earth was such a scoundrel doing in correspondence with the greatest mind of the age? The question stuck with me for a decade, and finally I made the time to dig a little deeper. Once I did, I discovered two things that made this book both possible, and from a writer's point of view, inescapable. The first was a trove of original documents that chronicled Newton's involvement in the pursuit and prosecution of not just Chaloner, but dozens of other currency criminals. The second was the insight this one story gives into Newton himself--and of the real extent and impact of the revolutions (plural deliberate) which he so prominently led. Isaac Newton is best remembered, of course, as the man at the vanguard of the scientific revolution--a status established by his discoveries: the laws of motion, gravity, the calculus, and much more. But I found that this story gave me a sense of what it was like to live through that revolution at street level. It provided an example of Newton's mind at work, for one, and for another, it involved Newton in the second of the great 17th century transformations, the financial revolution that occurred in conjunction, and with some connection to the scientific one.

Newton, I found, was a bureaucrat, a man with a job running England's money supply at a time with surprising parallels to our own: new, poorly understood financial engineering to deal with what was a national currency and economic crisis. He was asked to think about money, and he did--and at the same time, he was given the job of Warden of the Mint, which among other duties put him charge of policing those who would fake or undermine the King's coins. So there I had it: a gripping true crime story, with life-and-death stakes and enough information to follow my leading characters through the bad streets and worse jails of London--and one that at the same time let me explore some of critical moves in the making of the world we inhabit through the mind and feelings of perhaps the greatest scientific thinker who ever lived. How could I resist that?

Q: Are there comparisons to be made to the financial times we are living in today in this country?

A: When I started writing this book, (c. 2005) the American and the global economy was seemingly in robust health. The American housing market was booming; financial markets the world over were trading happily back and forth, the Dow in June, when I started working in earnest on the project, stood comfortably over 10,000, with a 40% rise to come through the first and second drafts of the work. And then, of course, things changed--and by that time (too late to do my own financial situation any good) I realized that in the story of Newton's confrontation with Chaloner I could see many of the pathologies that define our current predicament. England's currency and its system of high finance--the big loans and big banks behind them needed to fund government--were both under increasing strain when Newton arrived at the Mint.

Part of the damage was being done through imbalances of trade, as silver flowed out of England to the European continent and ultimately to India and China. (Sound familiar?) That loss of metal had huge economic consequences when you remember that money itself was made of silver back then. No silver, no coins. No coins--and how are you going to buy a loaf of bread, a pound of beef, a barrel of beer (which was a staple, and not a luxury given the state of London’s drinking (sic) water). At the same time, England was waging a war it could not pay for. (Sound familiar?) The Treasury was broke. Financial engineering got its start in the ever more desperate attempts by the government to raise the money it needed to keep its army in the field against France. Newton and his counterfeiting nemesis William Chaloner both found themselves operating on unfamiliar territory, with paper abstractions standing in for what used to be literally hard cash. This was when bank notes were invented--and Chaloner forged some. This was when the government began to issue what were in essence bonds--and Chaloner forged some of those too. Personal cheques were coming in, and--you guessed it--Chaloner passed a couple of duds. Most significantly, the Bank of England invented fractional reserve lending--lending out a multiple of the actual cash reserves it held at any one time. This was the birth of leverage. Put it all together and you have most of the crucial ideas in modern finance appearing at almost the same instant. These are fantastically useful tools; the enormous expansion of wealth, of material comfort, of human well being that we’ve seen over the last three centuries, derives in part from the fact that the English and their trading counterparties were so impressively inventive in those decades. But at the same time, as we know now all too well, each and every one of those financial ideas are capable of abuse. Now add to the usual temptations to financial sin the besetting danger of ignorance, of the sheer unfamiliarity of the new instruments, and you have the makings of an almost inevitable disaster.

In 2009, we are dealing with that double trouble: deliberate frauds combining with the larger problem that the complexity and sheer deep strangeness of new financial products allowed a lot of so-called smart money to make big bets they didn’t understand. Exactly the same kinds of pressures were building in Newton's day, and the financial crisis that Newton helped resolve in the 1690s kept spawning sequels, until in the 1720s, Newton himself got caught up in a disaster that in many ways eerily anticipates the one we are living through now. The South Sea Bubble of 1720 was born of a good idea--what we would now call a debt-for-equity swap--but rapidly turned into a fraud and then at the last a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. What I found most striking is that Newton, who of all men had the mathematical chops to figure out that the South Sea promises couldn't possibly be met, still got sucked in by the promise of outsize returns. Avarice, desire, or perhaps in Newton's case just the agony of the thought that others were getting richer while he was not, propelled him into investing in the bubble at its very peak. According to his niece, he lost 20,000 pounds in a matter of months--which in today’s money would be roughly three million pounds, or close to five million dollars. The moral, at least the lesson I took from this personally? No one, not even Newton, and certainly not me, is smart enough to be smarter than one's own emotions. And that grim fact, as much as any specific financial innovation, lies behind our current economic woes, and surely caught that great thinker Isaac Newton in its grip as well.

Q: Tell us about your research.

A: I was fortunate in this project--in fact, I only took on the book--because there was a rich lode of little-known documents that told the story of the clash between Newton and Chaloner. Five large folders survive of Newton's own notes, drafts and memos covering his official duties at the Mint. Examining them, especially drafts of replies to some of Chaloner's most audacious attacks on him at Parliamentary hearings, it is possible to see across time to Newton's mounting frustration and anger at his antagonist: his handwriting gets worse, more cramped, swift, and in general ticked off as he works through his responses. I was also able to find the handful of documents that can be unequivocally attributed to Chaloner: a couple of pamphlets he had printed to display his expertise in the making and manipulation of coin, and to allege incompetence, or worse at Newton's Mint. To that I added a marvelous, if not entirely reliable, moralizing biography of Chaloner, hastily written and published within days of his execution. That was one of the early examples of what became a staple pulp genre--edifying and titillating accounts of the wicked, in which any admiration for the rascals being chronicled were carefully wrapped up through the appropriate bad ends to which all the subjects of such works were doomed.

But of all the wellsprings of this book, none were more important than the file it took me over a year to find. I knew that some of the records Isaac Newton's criminal interrogations survived, because I found reference to them in a couple of the older biographies and other secondary sources. But in the reorganization of British official records that took place in the decades after World War II, the cataloguing systems for Mint files had undergone enough changes that this crucial set of documents had slipped out of sight of the contemporary Newton scholarly community. I managed to track it down to its current location in the Public Records Office, and then I had writer's gold: more than four hundred separate documents, most countersigned by Newton himself, that allowed me to retrace his steps as a criminal investigator informer by informer. Most fortunately--Newton’s nephew-in-law reported that he helped his wife's uncle burn many of his Mint interrogation records. But the entire Chaloner case remained in the one surviving folder, and it made for fascinating, gripping reading. Once Newton realized how formidable an opponent he had in Chaloner, he proved relentless in reconstructing not just particular crimes, but the whole architecture of counterfeiting and coining as it was practiced in London in the 1690s. You get to see, smell, hear how the bad guys worked, in their own words, as elicited by a man who (surprise!) proved to be exceptionally good at extracting the evidence he needed to solve a problem.

(Photo © Joel Benjamin)




--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"Levenson reveals the remarkable and true tale of the only criminal investigator who was far, far brainier than even Sherlock Holmes: Sir Isaac Newton during his tenure as Warden of the Royal Mint. What a fascinating saga! It allows us to see the human side of Newton and how his amazing mind worked when dealing with practical rather than theoretical questions.”
—Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein, His Life and Universe and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Newton and the Counterfeiter is a wonderful read that reveals a whole new side to a giant of science. Through a page-turning narrative, we witness Isaac Newton's genius grappling with the darker sides of human nature, an all too human journey reflecting his deepest beliefs about the cosmic order. This is a gripping story that enriches our sense of the man who forever changed our view of the universe.”
—Brian Greene, author of The Fabric of the Cosmos

As the great Newton recedes from us in time, he comes increasingly into focus as a man rather than a myth—thanks in no small measure to this learned and lively new study from the estimable Thomas Levinson.”
--Timothy Ferris, author of Seeing in the Dark

Newton and the Counterfeiter is both a fascinating read and a meticulously researched historical document: a combination difficult to achieve and rarely seen . . . Recommended for anyone who wants to know the real story behind this astonishing but largely overlooked chapter of scientific history.”
--Neal Stephenson, author of Cryptonomicon and Anathem

"I absolutely loved Newton and the Counterfeiter. Deft, witty and exhaustively researched, Levenson's tale illuminates a near-forgotten chapter of Newton's extraordinary life--the cat-and-mouse game that pitted him against a criminal mastermind--and manages not only to add to our knowledge of the great mathematician but to make a page turner out of it. This book rocks."
--Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Newton and the Counterfeiter is a delicious read, featuring brilliant detective work and a captivating story . . . a virtuoso performance.”
--Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind

"I loved Levenson's book. It's a rollicking account of the fascinating underbelly of seventeenth-century London--and reveals an aspect of Newton I'd scarcely known of before, yet which shaped the world we know. A tour de force."
--David Bodanis, author of E=MC2

"Levenson's account of this world of criminality, collusion and denunciation is meticulously researched and highly readable...the tale of Newton the economist is one worth telling." -- New Scientist

"Levenson demonstrates a surpassing felicity in his brisk treatment of this late-17th-century true-crime adventure...Swift, agile treatment of a little known but highly entertaining episode in a legendary life."
-- Kirkus Reviews

"Highly Reccommended." -- Library Journal

"Newton and the Counterfeiter packs a wonderful punch in its thoroughly surprising revelation of that other Isaac Newton, and in its vivid re-creation of 17th-century London and its fascinating criminal
haunts." -- Providence Journal

"Newton and the Counterfeiter is as finely struck as one of Newton's shillings." -- The Oregonian

"Levenson transforms inflation and metallurgy into a suspenseful detective story bolstered by an eloquent summary of Newtonian physics and stomach-turning descriptions of prison life in the Tower of London...Newton and the Counterfeiter humanizes a legend, transforming him into a Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of his own private Moriarity." -- Washington Post

More About the Author

My day job has me professing science writing at MIT, where I also run the Institute's Graduate Program in Science Writing.

I'm not yet wholly ivy-covered yet (and anyway -- the place up the street holds the franchise for that pernicious weed). In fact, I am a recent immigrant to the professoriat, and I continue to do what I did before: write books (and the occasional article), and make documentary films about science, its history, and its interaction with the broader culture in which scientific lives and discoveries unfold.

I'm just finished my fourth book, "Newton and the Counterfeiter" -- which is a great story from a little-known corner of Isaac Newton's life. My previous books include "Einstein in Berlin;" "Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science;" and "Ice Time: Climate Science and Life on Earth" (now, sadly, out of print). My documentaries have mostly appeared on PBS, and most of those on the NOVA series. Recent work includes the Origins series, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and broadcast on NOVA -- (my favorite is program four, the cosmology show, "Back to the Beginning"); the "Domes" program in David Macaulay's delightful PBS series Building Big, and NOVA's two hour Einstein Revealed, now a little long in the tooth, but featuring a nice turn by Andrew Sacks as Albert Einstein. (You may have seen Sacks in one of the great television comedy roles: Manuel the Spanish Waiter in Fawlty Towers.)

Besides writing, film making and generally being dour about the daily news, I lead an almost entirely conventional life in one of Boston's inner suburbs with a family that gives me great joy. The cat has to stop waking me up at five a.m., however.

Customer Reviews

And for all that, the book has done a great job.
R Helen
Reading this book is like eating a really long, really good dinner sitting next to a really good raconteur who knows all the fun facts about Newton and his time.
Dana Stabenow
I highly recommend this book to those interested in Isaac Newton, history (particularly British history and the history of science) and early economics.
Metallurgist

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 45 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on June 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Everyone knows Isaac Newton as among the greatest of physicists and mathematicians. Far fewer know that he was an alchemist, busy attempting to make gold. Fewer still know that he was an infidel to the Anglican Church; his peculiar ideas of the Trinity, for instance, almost led to his abandoning the University of Cambridge because he could not swear allegiance to the church. And fewer still know that for more years than he was a professor, Newton was a civil servant, a bureaucrat at the Royal Mint. As such, Newton helped solve the enormous and tangled problems counterfeiters were posing to the economic existence of Britain. In _Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist_ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), science writer Thomas Levenson has examined one aspect of Newton's forgotten second public career, his long fight against the forger and rascal William Chaloner. In doing so, he has not only cast light on a different aspect of the famous scientist, but has given a picture of how science was influencing the world's outlook on practical matters like coining and economics.

The first half of Levenson's book is mostly an accounting of the more famous aspects of Newton's career. Levenson points out that there is no doubting that Newton was inherently a genius, but that his achievements were based on his perseverance, a characteristic that would later serve his investigations at the mint. When Newton arrived at the mint in 1696, he had plenty of metallurgical hands-on experience in his own lab, and his empirical skills helped him observe, measure, and act on the data obtained.
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41 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Gary Schroeder on July 4, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Newton and the Counterfeiter is split into roughly four parts: Newton's career as a pioneer of what came to be known as classical physics, his less well-known pursuits in alchemy, the criminal career of counterfeiter William Chaloner, and the eventual crossing of their paths while Newton was Master of the Royal Mint. Along the way, you'll get an introduction into the British monetary crisis of the 1700s, and the origins of modern banking and economics.

Arguably, the most interesting portions of the book are the first two, which could have been the basis for another Newton biography. Newton, like all great figures in history, has a fascinating back-story. The story of the man who single-handedly shaped the basic concepts of modern scientific thought is certainly big enough to fill the pages of any book. As many other authors have covered this territory, author Levenson finds himself a new niche: highlighting the end of Newton's professional life as Master of the Royal Mint. Turns out that this portion of Newton's life, while interesting from a perspective of "I didn't know that," is not really meaty enough to carry a book.

Newton's pursuit of William Chaloner is primarily a story of move and counter-move in a London that had as yet no professional police force. Newton considered Chaloner, a long-standing and bold counterfeiter, an affront to his authority and pursued him relentlessly in an effort to bring him to trial. But the story of counterfeiter Chaloner too often devolves into discussions of the web of minor criminals that Chaloner was at the center of. X knew Y who was used by Z to lure X into divulging the source of...etc. The recitation of names and associations towards the end of the book is dry and often hard to follow.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Douglas S. Wood on January 30, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Newton and the Counterfeiter is an engaging, informative look at a little known slice of history: Sir Isaac Newton as the Warden of the Royal Mint and his battle with a professional counterfeiter named William Chaloner. At age 53 with his great scientific achievements behind him, Newton employed his unique mental powers and indefatigable nature to work on behalf of King William at time of crisis for England's currency and economy.

At the time, all English currency was metallic. (Paper money was just about to make its first appearance and later plays a key role in the story.) English coins were relatively simple and crude with rounded edges and imprints hammered by hand. The coins were easily subject to clipping. "Coiners" literally clipped the edges off coins and melted the cuttings. That product could then be diluted with less valuable metals and used to manufacture new counterfeit money.

England faced an even more difficult problem: precious metals had a higher value on the continent. Thus melted English coins could be taken to continental Europe and used to acquire coins of greater value than the original English coins. Multitudinous repetition of this process left England with virtually no money in circulation. With no money to fuel commerce, the economy ground to a halt.

Newton's job then was two-fold: to produce large quantities of new edged coins and to catch, convict, and punish the counterfeiters. Chaloner was at the top of London's counterfeiting underworld. He had a fine mind, a genius for counterfeiting, and an audacious character. Politics and religion provided a backdrop to the battle. Jacobite supports of former King James II were still active and Chaloner aligned with them. Gathering enough evidence to put Chaloner was not easy.
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