Saturday, January 14, 2012

When Isaac Newton Becomes Sherlock Holmes


Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson is one of the most fascinating reads I have enjoyed in some time. It helps that I have hero-worshiped Isaac Newton since I became an amateur astronomy zealot as a child way back in the 1960s. But anyone will find this an absorbing read because it is more than an historical rendering. It's like a Sherlock Holmes mystery novel meets the biography of perhaps the single most intelligent human being ever to live.

Many know Isaac Newton as the natural philosopher, the founder of modern science, the man who gave us the inverse square law of gravity, the author of the stunning Principia Mathematica and much more --but fewer people know that in his later years, Newton was a government bureaucrat, but not just any bureaucrat. He was the Warden and later Master of the British Mint, a powerful position because it put him at the center of very financial heart of the British Empire.

Part of his duties as warden of the mint was to be the top cop investigating crimes against the mint -- that meant mostly counterfeiting -- which was rife in London. This is what led the mighty Isaac Newton into a titanic struggle against one of London's most clever criminals, the coin counterfeiting genius William Chaloner.

This is such an incredible story that it almost seems a plot cooked up for a Hollywood thriller, except it happens to be 100% true. Isaac Newton takes on the role of a crime detective as he tracks a relentless, desperate criminal, who despite being a peasant with no formal education, was smart enough to match wits with London's finest, and even the mighty Newton himself.

Levenson takes on what is naturally an extremely complex story with a lot of necessary background and presents it an effortless, lucid and seamless way, making for a book of history that sometimes reads like a thriller novel.

Newton and the Counterfeiter gets my highest possible recommendation.


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