Book Review: 'Newton and the Counterfeiter' by Thomas Levenson

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Sunday, July 19, 2009


The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist

By Thomas Levenson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 318 pp. $25

Sir Isaac Newton -- bookish, asexual, harboring an uncool obsession with alchemy -- doesn't sound much like Humphrey Bogart. But after his famous apple-beaning inspired a mechanical portrait of our universe that would stand unchallenged for 200 years, the godfather of the Enlightenment used his plush sinecure at the Royal Mint to wage a war on counterfeiters that demanded very real gumshoe-ing. Thomas Levenson's "Newton and the Counterfeiter" presents the physicist's vendetta against "coiner" William Chaloner as a battle of wits between a genius polymath trying to reform the British Empire's monetary policy and a dastardly native of London's criminal underworld circa 1695.

A pop-science writer who has made Einstein, acoustics and meteorology intelligible to the right-brained, Levenson transforms inflation and metallurgy into a suspenseful detective story bolstered by an eloquent summary of Newtonian physics and stomach-turning descriptions of prison life in the Tower of London. Shortly after abandoning his Cambridge library for the filthy metropolis, Levenson writes, Newton "managed incredibly swiftly to master every dirty job required of the seventeenth-century version of a big-city cop." Like "Heavenly Intrigue," the 2004 book which posits that great astronomer Johannes Kepler murdered greater astronomer Tycho Brahe, "Newton and the Counterfeiter" humanizes a legend, transforming him into a Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of his own private Moriarity.

-- Justin Moyer

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