Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Isaac Newton: lawman

In Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist, Thomas Levenson recounts the fascinating episode of Newton's life in which he became the Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696 and thus responsible for catching counterfeiters - a serious problem at the time Newton took on his new position - and gathering evidence against them.

This is one of the most interesting science books that I have read in recent memory, not least of which being because I'd never heard of the part of Newton's life that the book focuses on before: Newton's battle of wits with one William Chaloner, a counterfeiter who managed to keep alluding the law until Newton was finally able to build a case (a not entirely "just" case by modern standards)* that Chaloner could not escape.

The book touches upon Newton's scientific accomplishments and his biographical background but uses that information as context for understanding how it was that Newton became so proficient at both catching counterfeiters and overseeing The Great Recoinage in which the kingdom's money was recalled and recoined, thanks to Newton, much faster than had been anticipated or thought possible. In short, Newton applied his empirical mind, mathematical skill, and his ability to dedicate himself to a problem until he could find a solution to the task.

Newton was promoted to Master of the Mint in 1699 and served in that position for 27 years until his death.

Read the book to find out how Newton helped saved the England from financial crisis and begin the transition to the modern era of finance and became the scourge of counterfeiters everywhere.

For more on the book, see the Levenson lecture below.

*Counterfeiting was considered treason and was punished with death. Seeing (through the mind's imaginative eye) men put to death for such crimes by hanging (with being drawn and disembowled William Wallace style being the full punishment) while not even being necessarily afforded a fair trial really demonstrates how unjust and cruel such a system was, fostering a greater appreciation for the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

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