Newton and the Counterfeiter
The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest ScientistBook - 2009
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The scene is 17th-century London's pestilent underbelly, riddled with pickpockets and quack doctors, the stink and groans from the Tower of London, brothels and drunkards. Petty criminals are shaving the edges off coins and melting the silver. Counterfeit coins litter the circulating currency. A serious gambler runs London's Royal Mint. But in 1696, a new Warden of the Mint takes over, and, breaking out of the job description, goes about cleaning up the mess. His name is Sir Isaac Newton.
"Isaac Newton?" science writer Thomas Levenson rightly asks at the start of his new book. "What had the man who had brought order to the cosmos to do with crime and punishment, the flash world of London's gin houses and tenements, bad money and worse faith?"
That's exactly the question that's been simmering in Levenson's mind for a decade. And the result is this inventive biography with a healthy dose of page-turning detective drama. Writing with the sharp eye of a historian, Levenson pulls you into the unexamined life of this brilliant scientist-turned-dogged criminal investigator as he pursues the wily, counterfeiting con-artist William Chaloner.
London had no real police force or fingerprint records at the time. Newton alone had to gather enough evidence to condemn the man with a scheme to infiltrate the Mint. And he did so with no restraint, venturing disguised into London pubs to spy on Chaloner's associates. Down to the apostrophes from Newton's pen, it's a real-life thriller you don't need to be a history-buff to appreciate.
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