Review: Newton and the Counterfeiter, by Thomas Levenson

Newton and the Counterfeiter: the Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist, by Thomas Levenson. Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 336 pp. $25.00 (cloth).


Isaac Newton sought “to master all the apparent confusion of the world, to bring order where none was apparent” (p. 5). He had, as Thomas Levenson shows, a “legendary capacity for study”; and for him frequently “sleep was optional” (p. 9). He was absolutely brilliant. Yet “for all his raw intelligence,” Levenson says, “Newton’s ultimate achievement turned on [the fact that if] something mattered to him, the man pursued it relentlessly.”

Equally crucial to his ultimate success, Newton was never a purely abstract thinker. He gained his central insight into the concept of force from evidence “known by [the] light of nature.” He tested his ideas about gravity and the motion of the moon with data drawn from his own painstaking experiments and the imperfect observations of others. When it came time to analyze the physics of the tides, the landlocked Newton sought out data from travelers the world over (p. 20).

By 1695, at the age of 51, Newton had been at “the leading edge of discovery” for almost three decades (p. 104). He had, as Levenson shows, discovered calculus—“the essential tool used to analyze change over time” (p. 14), and he had “presented gravity as the engine of the system of all creation—one that binds the rise and fall of the Thames . . . to all the observed motions of the solar system” (p. 30).

And then “an odd message arrived from London . . . on a matter completely outside his usual competence” (p. 105). The letter, sent by Secretary of the Treasury William Lowndes, solicited Newton’s opinion on the worsening shortage of silver coins, a matter of national importance. This unexpected correspondence would ultimately lead to Newton becoming warden of the Mint—and, as such, both an industrialist and a criminal investigator. Levenson tells the exciting story that follows in Newton and the Counterfeiter: the Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist.

The problem facing England was that from “the late 1680s to the mid-1690s, the supply of [silver] coins—the basic units of exchange for the daily business of the country—shrank year by year.” “By 1695,” Levenson says, “it was almost impossible to find legal silver in circulation” (p. 109). This led to a standstill in trade, tenants that could not pay rent, many suicides, and a “general sense of terror” that violence would soon erupt (p. 138). . . .

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