Newton and the counterfeiter

Thomas Levenson

Why I looked at this book

Isaac Newton is well known as a scientific genius. But trying to understand his thought processes is difficult, partly because the presentation of his scientific work has changed over time. I'm hoping this book will show a different side of Newton, and maybe get closer to the way his mind worked.

First impressions

After an introduction with a glimpse of detective Newton's pursuit of counterfeiter Chaloner, the book gets on to Newton's early life, and it looks hopeful that it will help in understanding Newton's thought processes in an easy to read style. I'm looking forward to the rest of the book.

Main review

The book continues with the life of Newton, and I felt that it did give me a new viewpoint on his thought processes, in particular his religious beliefs - how he felt all of his work was helping him to better understand God. Levenson looks at his alchemical work, but doesn't go much into the fine line he had to follow in his dealings with the established church - I think though that would fill another book.

We then read of the life of Chaloner, starting off as a minor counterfeiter, and although he was occasionally caught he somehow managing to rise in the world sufficiently to be able to give advice to the government on monetary matters. He was critical of the running of the mint, but this was clearly because he hoped to get involved with its running, which would have greatly increased his counterfeiting possibilities.

When Newton was appointed as Warden of the mint there was a general recoining in progress, but it wasn't going well. Fortunately Newton was more conscientious than his predecessors, and when took charge the recoining was finished in a reasonable time. Since having a stable currency was important for the prosperity of the country, we see that not only was Newton responsible for the beginning of modern science, he also played a vital part in the economic growth that started in Britain in the eighteenth century.

And so to Newton vs Chaloner. Dealing with counterfeiting wasn't simple. It was a capital crime, but that meant juries were reluctant to convict minor criminals. The problem then was to find who was in charge - although you may have evidence against several people, they would all claim to be minor players, and more than willing to testify against others in return for a reduced sentence. In the end Newton found it best to build up the weight of evidence against Chaloner, rather than giving a clear proof of his guilt for a particular crime.

It's a fascinating book, telling of a critical time for both science and economics, and can be read by those without specialist knowledge of subjects, so I would certainly give it my recommendation.
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