: Newton and the counterfeiter: the unknown detective career of the world's greatest scientist (9780151012787) : Thomas Levenson : Books
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      Newton And The Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career Of The World's Greatest Scientist

      by Thomas Levenson
      Our price: LBP 37,500 / $ 25.00Unavailable
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      Product Details

      • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
      • Publishing date: 04/06/2009
      • Language: English
      • ISBN-13: 9780151012787
      • ISBN: 0151012784


      Product Description
      In 1695, Isaac Newton--already renowned as the greatest mind of his age--made a surprising career change. He left quiet Cambridge, where he had lived for thirty years and made his earth-shattering discoveries, and moved to London to take up the post of Warden of His Majesty's Mint. Newton was preceded to the city by a genius of another kind, the budding criminal William Chaloner. Thanks to his preternatural skills as a counterfeiter, Chaloner was rapidly rising in London's highly competitive underworld, at a time when organized law enforcement was all but unknown and money in the modern sense was just coming into being. Then he crossed paths with the formidable new warden. In the courts and streets of London--and amid the tremors of a world being transformed by the ideas Newton himself had set in motion--the two played out an epic game of cat and mouse.

      A Q&A with Thomas Levenson, Author of Newton and the Counterfeiter

      Q: Why did you decide to write Newton and the Counterfeiter?

      A: I first encountered the connection at the heart of Newton and the Counterfeiter when I was working on a very different project in the mid '90s. A long out of print book quoted from one of the few letters between my counterfeiter, William Chaloner, and Isaac Newton--and on reading it I wondered: what on earth was such a scoundrel doing in correspondence with the greatest mind of the age? The question stuck with me for a decade, and finally I made the time to dig a little deeper. Once I did, I discovered two things that made this book both possible, and from a writer's point of view, inescapable. The first was a trove of original documents that chronicled Newton's involvement in the pursuit and prosecution of not just Chaloner, but dozens of other currency criminals. The second was the insight this one story gives into Newton himself--and of the real extent and impact of the revolutions (plural deliberate) which he so prominently led. Isaac Newton is best remembered, of course, as the man at the vanguard of the scientific revolution--a status established by his discoveries: the laws of motion, gravity, the calculus, and much more. But I found that this story gave me a sense of what it was like to live through that revolution at street level. It provided an example of Newton's mind at work, for one, and for another, it involved Newton in the second of the great 17th century transformations, the financial revolution that occurred in conjunction, and with some connection to the scientific one.

      Newton, I found, was a bureaucrat, a man with a job running England's money supply at a time with surprising parallels to our own: new, poorly understood financial engineering to deal with what was a national currency and economic crisis. He was asked to think about money, and he did--and at the same time, he was given the job of Warden of the Mint, which among other duties put him charge of policing those who would fake or undermine the King's coins. So there I had it: a gripping true crime story, with life-and-death stakes and enough information to follow my leading characters through the bad streets and worse jails of London--and one that at the same time let me explore some of critical moves in the making of the world we inhabit through the mind and feelings of perhaps the greatest scientific thinker who ever lived. How could I resist that?

      Q: Are there comparisons to be made to the financial times we are living in today in this country?

      A: When I started writing this book, (c. 2005) the American and the global economy was seemingly in robust health. The American housing market was booming; financial markets the world over were trading happily back and forth, the Dow in June, when I started working in earnest on the project, stood comfortably over 10,000, with a 40% rise to come through the first and second drafts of the work. And then, of course, things changed--and by that time (too late to do my own financial situation any good) I realized that in the story of Newton's confrontation with Chaloner I could see many of the pathologies that define our current predicament. England's currency and its system of high finance--the big loans and big banks behind them needed to fund government--were both under increasing strain when Newton arrived at the Mint.

      Part of the damage was being done through imbalances of trade, as silver flowed out of England to the European continent and ultimately to India and China. (Sound familiar?) That loss of metal had huge economic consequences when you remember that money itself was made of silver back then. No silver, no coins. No coins--and how are you going to buy a loaf of bread, a pound of beef, a barrel of beer (which was a staple, and not a luxury given the state of London’s drinking (sic) water). At the same time, England was waging a war it could not pay for. (Sound familiar?) The Treasury was broke. Financial engineering got its start in the ever more desperate attempts by the government to raise the money it needed to keep its army in the field against France. Newton and his counterfeiting nemesis William Chaloner both found themselves operating on unfamiliar territory, with paper abstractions standing in for what used to be literally hard cash. This was when bank notes were invented--and Chaloner forged some. This was when the government began to issue what were in essence bonds--and Chaloner forged some of those too. Personal cheques were coming in, and--you guessed it--Chaloner passed a couple of duds. Most significantly, the Bank of England invented fractional reserve lending--lending out a multiple of the actual cash reserves it held at any one time. This was the birth of leverage. Put it all together and you have most of the crucial ideas in modern finance appearing at almost the same instant. These are fantastically useful tools; the enormous expansion of wealth, of material comfort, of human well being that we’ve seen over the last three centuries, derives in part from the fact that the English and their trading counterparties were so impressively inventive in those decades. But at the same time, as we know now all too well, each and every one of those financial ideas are capable of abuse. Now add to the usual temptations to financial sin the besetting danger of ignorance, of the sheer unfamiliarity of the new instruments, and you have the makings of an almost inevitable disaster.

      In 2009, we are dealing with that double trouble: deliberate frauds combining with the larger problem that the complexity and sheer deep strangeness of new financial products allowed a lot of so-called smart money to make big bets they didn’t understand. Exactly the same kinds of pressures were building in Newton's day, and the financial crisis that Newton helped resolve in the 1690s kept spawning sequels, until in the 1720s, Newton himself got caught up in a disaster that in many ways eerily anticipates the one we are living through now. The South Sea Bubble of 1720 was born of a good idea--what we would now call a debt-for-equity swap--but rapidly turned into a fraud and then at the last a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. What I found most striking is that Newton, who of all men had the mathematical chops to figure out that the South Sea promises couldn't possibly be met, still got sucked in by the promise of outsize returns. Avarice, desire, or perhaps in Newton's case just the agony of the thought that others were getting richer while he was not, propelled him into investing in the bubble at its very peak. According to his niece, he lost 20,000 pounds in a matter of months--which in today’s money would be roughly three million pounds, or close to five million dollars. The moral, at least the lesson I took from this personally? No one, not even Newton, and certainly not me, is smart enough to be smarter than one's own emotions. And that grim fact, as much as any specific financial innovation, lies behind our current economic woes, and surely caught that great thinker Isaac Newton in its grip as well.

      Q: Tell us about your research.

      A: I was fortunate in this project--in fact, I only took on the book--because there was a rich lode of little-known documents that told the story of the clash between Newton and Chaloner. Five large folders survive of Newton's own notes, drafts and memos covering his official duties at the Mint. Examining them, especially drafts of replies to some of Chaloner's most audacious attacks on him at Parliamentary hearings, it is possible to see across time to Newton's mounting frustration and anger at his antagonist: his handwriting gets worse, more cramped, swift, and in general ticked off as he works through his responses. I was also able to find the handful of documents that can be unequivocally attributed to Chaloner: a couple of pamphlets he had printed to display his expertise in the making and manipulation of coin, and to allege incompetence, or worse at Newton's Mint. To that I added a marvelous, if not entirely reliable, moralizing biography of Chaloner, hastily written and published within days of his execution. That was one of the early examples of what became a staple pulp genre--edifying and titillating accounts of the wicked, in which any admiration for the rascals being chronicled were carefully wrapped up through the appropriate bad ends to which all the subjects of such works were doomed.

      But of all the wellsprings of this book, none were more important than the file it took me over a year to find. I knew that some of the records Isaac Newton's criminal interrogations survived, because I found reference to them in a couple of the older biographies and other secondary sources. But in the reorganization of British official records that took place in the decades after World War II, the cataloguing systems for Mint files had undergone enough changes that this crucial set of documents had slipped out of sight of the contemporary Newton scholarly community. I managed to track it down to its current location in the Public Records Office, and then I had writer's gold: more than four hundred separate documents, most countersigned by Newton himself, that allowed me to retrace his steps as a criminal investigator informer by informer. Most fortunately--Newton’s nephew-in-law reported that he helped his wife's uncle burn many of his Mint interrogation records. But the entire Chaloner case remained in the one surviving folder, and it made for fascinating, gripping reading. Once Newton realized how formidable an opponent he had in Chaloner, he proved relentless in reconstructing not just particular crimes, but the whole architecture of counterfeiting and coining as it was practiced in London in the 1690s. You get to see, smell, hear how the bad guys worked, in their own words, as elicited by a man who (surprise!) proved to be exceptionally good at extracting the evidence he needed to solve a problem.

      (Photo © Joel Benjamin)

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      • Newton a Detective?
        From Amazon

        I heard about this book on NPR, the source of most of the great books I read. The author intrigued me by talking about Sir Issac Newton changing careers; reinventing himself so to speak. I was hooked. This is a great read -- a bit scholastic in places but so very interesting.

      • Who was Isaac Newton?
        From Amazon

        The book title is a little misleading, since the story of Newton's campaign to convict the counterfeiter is only used as a peg on which to hang an excellent summary of the life of Newton and the social background (Grantham, Cambridge and London) within which he lived. The author paints a vivid picture and does his best to reconstruct the major events in what was a very chequered career: farm boy to scholar, internationally recognized mathematician to alchemist, and technocrat to detective. He even attempts to fill in the blank of Newton's hypothetical love-life. Although this is not a scholarly text, it is an excellent 'read' and touches on many aspects of Newton's character and career that are not exactly common knowledge. For any reader who would like to delve deeper, the sources used by the author are all listed.

      • Who Knew?
        From Amazon

        What a fascinating book. I was totally enthralled from page one. One always thinks of Newton as a dry physics lesson, but think again. I wish that my high school science teacher had read this book, what a totally different outlook I might have had. Anyone interested in science, money, history, detective stories, mysteries, or just a cracking good read should pick this book up.

      • Newton As Bureaucrat
        From Amazon

        Isaac Newton is almost universally known as a mathematical physicist, with images of a selfless scholar who stood on the shoulders of giants. Relatively little is known of him after he left the scholarly life for a sinecure in bustling London, ultimately leading to his involvement in petty national politics, for which his knighthood was a prop. But before then he managed to save England's commercial economy by applying his intellect to diagnose a problem of economics and not physics, recommending a rational solution that was ignored, and then save the realm by helping to make its money worth something. That effort exposed him to an ugly underworld, which he eventually mastered with few scholarly methods other than intense analysis. Newton always had a hard side, and placing him in a position where he was figuratively judge, jury and executioner, made that side even harder. Almost like reading a crime novel, and often just as exciting, this well written book explores Britain's social and economic system, including the counterfeiting underworld that he had to learn to control. To his credit he accomplished this within the letter of British law, with relentlessness typical of dedicated career government bureaucrats. There were no giants in this, his second career, but there certainly was far more personal involvement than we would expect from someone who explained the system of the world.

      • Super long and boring
        From Amazon

        This book was not exciting at all! It read like a dry scientific textbook, not an exciting mystery story. For the most part, this book wasn't even about Newton's pursuit of a counterfeiter - it was about the science behind many of his philosophical discoveries. I would not recommend this book to anyone, unless you like reading boring science books.

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