Monday, July 13, 2009

Book Review: "Newton and the Counterfeiter"

Thomas Levenson's Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) highlights a little-known entry on Isaac Newton's C.V., his time as Warden of the Royal Mint in the late 1690s. Levenson contrasts Newton with one William Chaloner, a big-time counterfeiter whose downfall Newton eventually secured, but not until Chaloner had managed to tweak the strings of justice a few times.

The book works. Levenson provides capsule histories of Newton's scientific and alchemical careers, plus the English financial, political and criminal justice systems (particularly as relevent to counterfeiting). He puts the existing sources to good use in trying to suss out details about Chaloner's life and activities (plus those of other forgers, coiners and rogues). The way he manages to bring the two together was effective, and carried off very well. It's the kind of story that would make a good novel, but which written by the right person works even better as history.

I'll quibble, as usual, that the notes (which are very good) are not indicated in the text. The bibliography is extensive, and useful. Overall, a fine read, and one I'll happily recommend.

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