Issac Newton: A Scientist-Detective: Review of Newton and the Counterfeiter

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My most recent foray into science began with a series of WWII novels (Los Alamos, The Good German, and All the Light We Cannot See) that I read, and reviewed here. Through this, I forget now why, I was discovered Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist.

Issac Newton as a detective, investigator, pursuer and prosecutor of criminals for the British (then English) Mint? Since when I asked when I discovered a blurb about the book.

Levenson does an excellent job at distilling into a readable summary Issac Newton’s life. The scientist’s life before his appointment as Warden of the Mint complemented nicely his pursuit of coiners and counterfeiters.I learned a lot not only about Issac Newton, but about the origins of modern banking and finance, and the reign of King William III. 100px-Portrait_of_William_III,_(1650-1702)   Levenson added nicely to what I read in When America First Met China about the circumstances that led up to the runaway flow of silver into China when trade with the Far East really opened up.

The beginning and end of the book, dealing with Newton’s appointment Mint and his investigation into the widespread unauthorized coining and counterfeiting operations of English currency, and principally, of Newton’s investigation and prosecution of William Chaloner, are written in more of a narrative form than the parts about Newton’s life before his appointment. Think of a meandering true crime book or a documentary that has a plot.

The scientific life of  pre-Mint Newton was written in more in the academic style of writing , though at times with a hint of a plot and use of other narrative devices. Still, this section was enjoyable to read. I could sense the fevered urgency with which Issac Newton built and enlarged upon the budding principles of scientific thinking and experimentation. A good companion read to this section is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Levenson’s delving into Newton’s foray into alchemy slowed the pace of the book unnecessarily. The relevance of the sections on alchemy becomes clear when Levenson returns to Newton’s coining and counterfeiting investigations, but blending the two sections into one I believe might have worked better. The brief section on Newton’s private life seemed an irrelevant diversion. There were also times that I could not figure out what Levenson was getting at, even after reading particular passages several times. Notwithstanding these issues, Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist is a book I recommend highly.

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