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Newton and the Counterfeiter October 21, 2011

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Books, Brilliant words.

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist is my favorite type of history: real stories told largely from primary documents, assembled in a credible narrative.  And all the guesses about what happened where there is scant evidence are labeled as such.

The author, Thomas Levenson, a science writing professor at MIT whose previous books include "Einstein in Berlin;" "Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science;" and "Ice Time: Climate Science and Life on Earth" is a very good writer as one might expect, explaining Newton’s thoughts taken directly from his voluminous papers and interpolating neatly in the spaces between Newton’s words and other historical records.

The counterfeiter, one William Chaloner, gets as much attention as documentation allows.  He was unusual in that he was something of a public figure, having tried to get himself appointed to the mint where Newton was the warden.  The warden of the mint had the duty of pursuing counterfeiters and, though Newton tried to get out of it, he eventually approached it with the same zeal and relentless energy he had heretofore devoted to unlocking the secrets of the universe.

Really, when you are up against the man who made possible the founding of the modern world, you are probably going to lose. Though very clever and utterly ruthless, Chaloner didn’t have a chance.

This book is wonderful for more than this story, however; it finally explains to my satisfaction why Newton was so devoted to alchemy.  He felt that if he could demonstrate transformations of elements it would be a final proof of the working of God in everyday life.  I imagine he was pretty frustrated by failure after twenty years (the business of merely discovering truth is much easier than jacking up religious delusions).  Levenson explains this very carefully and it helps keep Newton human, and not a pathetic nutjob as some might think him.  Also, his approach to alchemy was very scientific, in the technical sense: he was accurate as could be with weights and measures.

I listened to the Audible recording of this book and found it very well narrated.  I have read one review in Amazon.com which thought it was a dry read and too academic, and I imagine it was; this is the kind of story which tells better than it reads.  Sadly, the audiobook is $17.95 and the paperback is $5.98, so this book, though delightful, will be inaccessible to some.


EXCITING UPDATE: For a punctuation-free, foul-mouthed retelling of this story, see Bettermyths.com. Language not safe for Mom.


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