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Newton the gumshoe

Everyone knows the story about Sir Isaac Newton's run-in with an apple. But when you read linkurl:Newton and the Counterfeiter;http://www.amazon.com/Newton-Counterfeiter-Detective-Greatest-Scientist/dp/0151012784 by Thomas Levenson, you realize that there was more to the man than an extraordinary understanding of physics and philosophy. The book tells the story of how, in the author's words: "Newton, only months removed from the life of a Cambridge philosopher, managed incredibly swiftly to mast

By | July 31, 2009

Everyone knows the story about Sir Isaac Newton's run-in with an apple. But when you read linkurl:Newton and the Counterfeiter;http://www.amazon.com/Newton-Counterfeiter-Detective-Greatest-Scientist/dp/0151012784 by Thomas Levenson, you realize that there was more to the man than an extraordinary understanding of physics and philosophy. The book tells the story of how, in the author's words: "Newton, only months removed from the life of a Cambridge philosopher, managed incredibly swiftly to master every dirty job required of the seventeenth century version of a big-city cop."
What makes the story spellbinding is not just that Newton managed this transformation, but that in doing so he came up against a criminal mastermind who has few equals -- even in fiction -- for his imaginative brazenness. In 1695 the British government sought out Newton's opinion on troubling financial matters, and although his advice was for the most part disregarded, he ended up being appointed Warden of the English Mint that year. The greatest mind of the 17th (or arguably any) century found himself in a position to use his superior mental powers to study and rectify the problems of England's Mint. Once he'd improved the manufacture of the King's coin by adding eight new rolling mills and five new coin presses to the Mint, his attention turned to the country's counterfeiters. This is when Newton morphed into a master sleuth, building a network of spies and informers in London's underworld, never hesitating to wade into unsavory, dangerous territory. His mania for detail helped him in matching wits with one of the most inventive criminals of the age, one William Chaloner. William Chaloner's roots, like Newton's, were rural, but there the resemblance between the two men ended. From an early age, Chaloner proved troubled. Given by his parents into an apprenticeship to a nail maker, he learned to handle molten metals. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, he ran off to London where his life of crime began. Chaloner dabbled in deception, hawking fake, homemade watches and posing as a physician. Chaloner's rise through the ranks of London's criminal world continued, but he was forced to retreat into the London's seedy underworld when he was threatened with arrest for stealing. He would emerge as a master counterfeiter just as Newton took up his post at the Mint. The two were on a collision course, and the first few rounds went to Chaloner, who had friends in high places and an audacity that saw him writing pamphlets ("The Defects in the present Constitution of the Mint") and testifying before Parliamentary committees on how to stop both clipping and counterfeiting. (Clipping was a process of cutting bits of a silver coin off the edge and re-working the coin to appear untouched. Clipping was possible only with the old, handmade coins but was extremely profitable, leaving the clipper with silver ingots which could then be sold, traded, or shipped to the continent in exchange for gold.) Chaloner never stopped trying to worm his way into the Mint itself, offering to demonstrate for government officials how to stop counterfeiters and clippers. All the while, Newton continued to build his network of spies and informants, while keeping meticulous records of everything Chaloner was doing by deposing his coconspirators. Newton's implacability and relentlessness bring linkurl:Police Inspector Javert;http://www.enotes.com/les-miserables/inspector-javert of Hugo's linkurl:Les Miserables;http://www.online-literature.com/victor_hugo/les_miserables/ to mind. The philosopher eventually assembled such a compelling case against Chaloner -- from testimony by witnesses, informants, and even the wives and mistresses of the criminal's associates -- that he was able to bring him up on charges of counterfeiting the King's coin, a treasonable offence, in 1698. Newton's careful records left Levenson a remarkably clear trail, for being written almost four centuries ago. Adding to the author's storytelling arsenal was an anonymous biography of Chaloner written shortly after his execution in 1698. Levenson's pace and timing rival those of the best crime story authors. He has written a real page-turner, perfect for a long afternoon's engagement with the hammock or whiling away a long airport layover. linkurl:Newton and the Counterfeiter,;http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/catalog/titledetail.cfm?titleNumber=1098801 by Thomas Levenson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-151-01278-7. 336 pp. $25.00.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Maggot sleuthing;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/54956/
[September 2008]*linkurl:Who killed Cora Crippen?;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53864/
[16th November 2007]*linkurl:CSI: My cat;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/53514/
[September 2007]

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