Book: Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson

Wish it were better

Thomas Levenson
Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist
Houghton Mifflin Harcount, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-15-101278-7
252 pages (main text)

Newton and the Counterfeiter makes me think of Bennett Cerf's old joke that since books on the American civil war sell well, and so do books about medicine and books about dogs, a guaranteed best-seller would be Lincoln's Doctor's Dog. In the case of Newton and the Counterfeiter, it seems that the author, Thomas Levenson, and his publisher were thinking of someone very much like me. Books about scientists are cool. So are books about interesting parts of history and books about detectives. So what could be better than a book about Isaac Newton's detective career? As it turns out, a fair number of things could be, unfortunately.

To some extent that's not really the author's fault. The historical record is there, but what survives from the late seventeenth century is a bit thin. Perhaps not surprisingly, Newton seems to have been a bit of an odd duck and historians find it difficult to give even a coherent portrait of the great man. The counterfeiter in question is William Chaloner and most of the little we know about his life is from an anonymous biography published shortly after his execution. Narrative-wise things kind of go downhill from there. Mr Levenson labors to put a narrative together out of the fragments he has but it never quite becomes seamless. There are interesting things here, but an engrossing narrative isn't one of them.

Much of the first half of the book is a short biography of Newton's early years. If it doesn't really give a sense of the man, it's still remarkable enough reading. It's easy to forget that Newton is pretty much responsible for the image we have of the universe around us being essentially mechanistic and governed by mathematical laws.

Having become justly famous as a result of the publication of his Principia, Newton was angling for a tonier job than that of Cambridge professor. He got it in the form of Warden of the Royal Mint. That was traditionally a sinecure, but Newton was apparently unwilling to let his mind rest and he threw himself into the considerable problems of management and engineering presented by replacing all of England's coins with higher-security versions.

The warden's job also involved catching counterfeiters. Newton didn't particularly want to do that at first, but since he had to, he was going to do it right. And he proved to be an excellent investigator. That brought him into conflict with Chaloner who was one of the more prolific and clever counterfeiters of the time. He was pretty brazen too, testifying before parliament to accuse mint officials of corruption and offering to help stop counterfeiters. Newton eventually gets his man, but that story (which runs a little less than 100 pages), while interesting enough, doesn't rise to be engrossing. For example, at one point, Newton is instructed to prepare a case against Chaloner. Newton knows that the evidence is still too thin, but the prosecution goes ahead anyway. Chaloner is duly acquitted and petitions parliament for redress, claiming that he is an innocent man who has been unjustly persecuted. Mr Levenson then says:

    Chaloner's petition sparked yet another official
    investigation, and for the moment roles were
    reversed: isaac Newton was standing in the dock,
    defending himself against the charge of framing
    an innocent man. A panel of senior government
    figures was assembled to look into the matter,
    and though the group was stacked with Newton's
    friends -- Charles Montague and such reliable
    allies as Lowndes and James Vernon, then
    serving as Secretary of State -- initially the
    evidence heard by the group, including Chaloner's
    own testimony, tended to favor Chaloner's claim.
    The panel persisted, however, and as other
    witnesses testified, more and more gaps turned up
    in the plaintiff's story. In the end, the investigators
    produced a report that dismissed Chaloner's claims
    -- but quickly, in a bald rejection that did not satisfy
Newton's huger for full exoneration. (p. 189)

I'm sure that that's all strictly accurate, but it's not the sort of writing that makes a book hard to put down.

Posted: Wed - August 5, 2009 at 08:02 PM   Main   Category: