God said, Let Newton be! and there was light.

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

This is one of those books that only underscores how little I know. I knew about Newton, sure, I’d even heard that great line of Pope’s (‘God said Let Newton be! and there was light.’) but I certainly didn’t know that after thirty years at Cambridge Newton got a patronage job at the Royal Mint and pretty much personally hauled the British nation back from the brink of bankruptcy, and further, acted in the capacity of criminal investigator (squee!) in chasing down counterfeiters.

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.

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Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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