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Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist Hardcover – June 4, 2009
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A fascinating slice of true-crime history that unfolds in 1695, when law enforcement was unheard of and modern money was little more than a concept
When renowned scientist Isaac Newton took up the post of Warden of His Majestyâs Mint in London, another kind of geniusâa preternaturally gifted counterfeiter named William Chalonerâhad already taken up residence in the city, rising quickly in an unruly, competitive underworld. In the courts and streets of London, and amid the tremors of a world being transformed by ideas Newton himself had set in motion, Chaloner crosses paths with the formidable new warden. An epic game of cat and mouse ensues in Newton and the Counterfeiter, revealing for the first time that Newton was not only one of the greatest minds of his age, but also a remarkably intrepid investigator.
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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. Herein, you discover that the story about the apple was not, in fact, apocryphal, and that
In 1943, at a dinner party at the Royal Society Club, a member pulled from his pocket two large apples of a variety called Flower of Kent, a cooking apple popular in the 1600s. These were, the owner explained, the fruit of one of the grafts of the original at Woolsthorpe. Newton's apple itself is no fairy tale; it budded, it ripened; almost three centuries later it could still be tasted in all the knowledge that flowed from its rumored fall.
Eating of the fruit of the the tree of knowledge. Really, I just have to give another [squee!].
They were crowd sourcing back then. Yes, they were:
...how glorious it would be if gentlemen of England rose from their beds and made similar observations all over the country, building a picture not just of local conditions but of the varieties of climate throughout the realm...Hooke published his meteorological call to arms in the journal of the Royal Society...
You'll find out why coins are ridged around the edge instead of smooth, that counterfeiting flourished in spite of a freely applied death penalty (always supposing you didn't have L6,000 to buy a pardon), that Newton spent twenty years trying to turn lead into gold, which had everything to do with his determination to prove the existence of God, and then refused to take communion from the Church of England before he died.
Newton and indeed all science, or natural philosophy as it was called then benefited by the explosion of print media at that time. Anyone with an axe to grind and a few schillings could print a broadside and see it circulated, including William Chaloner, a coyner (counterfeiter) who wrote a broadside attacking bad practices inside the Mint and actually succeeded in getting the ear of the Parliamentary committee that oversaw it. He came way too close to getting a job inside the Mint itself and proved to be Newton's biggest foe. Chaloner, who got his start with sex toys, faked coins of every denomination, the first Bank of England notes, lottery tickets, you name it, if it served as legal tender, Chaloner made a copy and sold it.
He was very careful about never distributing any of the fakes personally, farming that out to friends and associates, and therein his downfall, because
Like any street cop in history--and unlike any other fellow of the Royal Society or Cambridge don--[Newton] would have to wade hip-deep into London's underworld.
And wade he does. He even has himself appointed a justice of the peace so as to solve problems of jurisdiction over London's seven counties, and then, like any good natural philosopher, he starts gathering data.
Most of London's coiners did not grasp the danger this strange new Warden posed. The documents Newton didn't burn [and the story behind that involves torture, extralegal, shades of extreme interrogation], all written between 1698 and 1700, reveal the almost unfair contest between the Warden and those who tried to trade in bad money.
You get the feeling that Levenson feels a little sorry for those hapless counterfeiters, because Newton?
Always gets his man.
Highly recommended, and a quick read, too.
It simply boggles the mind the information that continues to be uncovered about Newton's life. Not only a landed farmboy, a child prodigy, a professor of mathematics, a revolutionary mathematician and physicist and the head of the Royal Society, Newton continued on to be many other things. He spent years unsuccessfully investigating alchemy, an enterprise doomed to failure without the as-yet undiscovered knowledge of atomic physics. He spent decades investigating the history of the Bible, coming to various unorthodox (and unsupportable) conclusions. And here, we see that his time as the head of the Royal Mint was nothing short of daring.
Levenson's book begins slowly enough, with several chapters of background covering Newton's earlier, scientific life, before progressing to the essence of the tale. Newton was not merely 'master of the Mint'. He was brought into the job at a time when England was facing a financial crisis of epic proportions, brought on by a changing banking landscape, inadequate economic policies, an expensively useless war and rife counterfeting of its increasingly debased currency - all of which the government and the Mint were inadequately equipped to handle.
Enter Newton, who immediately sets about bringing his meticulous scientific methods to bear on the Mint's policies and production efficiency. He not only turns around the fortunes of England, he delves into the underworld to hamstring and capture the counterfeiters crippling England's coinage. He plays the role of police officer and detective, takes criminals into custody, runs networks of informers, questions witnesses, plants spies in gaols, conducts interrogations and compiles evidence for use by prosecuting barristers. His life in pursuit of William Chaloner moves like a real-life CSI episode, at a time when England scarcely had any kind of professional police force, and years before any of these practices would become standardised law enforcement procedures.
Levenson's work is well-written and extremely well-referenced. It had me on the edge of my seat. A more gripping description of a scientific figure, I am yet to encounter.