Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson

A surprising benefit of listening to science podcasts is finding lots of books to read. Listening to Science Friday from NPR a few weeks ago, I heard an engaging interview with Thomas Levenson, author of Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist. Levenson told how he stumbled upon information about Sir Isaac Newton, sometimes heralded as the first real scientist for his adherence to the scientific method, pursuing criminals in his capacity as Warden of the Royal Mint.

Throughout history, little was expected of the Warden of the Royal Mint, except the drawing of a large salary. The position was usually a political reward to a supporter of the king or queen. Due to a monetary crisis caused by the silver in British coins being of far greater value than denomination value of those coins, the coins were regularly and illegally being shaved or melted down. With a shortage of currency, counterfeiters had an opening to reap high profits. With no police force in London and the establishment of Scotland Yard still more than a century away, the job of enforcing the king's currency laws fell to Newton, who was at first unwilling to carry out his duty. According to Levenson, however, when the mathematician-physicist-philosopher took on the task, he pursued counterfeiters with determination. He was especially keen to bring to trial and convict the brash metal smith William Chaloner. Levenson credits Newton with establishing criminal investigative methods.

In the first half of the book, Levenson relates how both Newton and Chaloner became middle-aged enemies. The historical details slow the story a bit in the middle, but the later part of the book in which the warden and the criminal seek to destroy each other is compelling reading. Throughout the story, readers learn much about the world of scientific gentlemen and London crime figures. Near the end, the descriptions of the hanging and evisceration of criminals is a bit horrifying.

Most libraries have put this book in their science sections, but I think it fits better in crime or history sections. It also works fairly well as a biographical sketch of Newton.

Levenson, Thomas. Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. ISBN 9780151012787

2 comments:

Tom Levenson said...

Thanks for this kind notice -- Tom Levenson

joyce said...

Rick, There's also a fascinating novel on that topic: Dark Matter by Philip Kerr. Came out in 2002.

Joyce Saricks