Newton, P.I.

By Sean Carroll | July 1, 2009 9:36 am

When I was studying for my Ph.D., a fellow grad student and I asked our advisor if he could think of one single characteristic that was common to all of the best scientists he knew. Without too much hesitation, he answered: “Hard work.” That certainly wasn’t the answer we wanted to hear — you mean there isn’t some secret recipe to being brilliant? And of course hard work is not nearly enough to elevate you to the ranks of the world’s great scientists. But now that I have marinated for some time in the juices of experience myself, I see the truth of what he was getting at; there are a lot of smart people out there, so it makes sense that what elevates a few of them above their peers is an extraordinary focus on their work and a great amount of simple effort.

So it should come as no surprise that Isaac Newton, the greatest physicist of all time, was a relentless worker. In his days at Cambridge, when he focused on the workings of the natural world, he would spend as little time as possible on anything that drew him away from the researches in his rooms. Over the couple of years he was writing the Principia Mathematica, he took things to extremes, going for extended periods without food or sleep. (He also, apparently, died a virgin. Extremes come in many guises.)

Most contemporary physicists have heard that Newton eventually left Cambridge and more or less turned his back on scientific research, to take up activities in later life that we associate with varying degrees of disreputability: alchemy, religious studies, taking a bureaucratic position at the Royal Mint, using the Royal Society to attack his scientific rivals. Lots of us shrug and agree that many older scientists do all sorts of crazy things, and don’t wonder too much about the details.

levenson-newtoncounter-us-cover1.jpgHappily, Tom Levenson (of The Inverse Square, and one of our honored guest bloggers) has provided us with a fascinating peek into a telling episode in Newton’s later life — his career as a criminal investigator. Not really “P.I.”, as Newton was acting in his capacity as a government official, the Warden of the Mint. The story is closer to something from Law and Order or CSI — remarkably close, in fact. In Newton and the Counterfeiter, Levenson tells the tale of how Newton took up what should have been a cushy sinecure, and ended up devoting his extraordinary Newtonian powers to the pursuit and prosecution of one William Chaloner, the counterfeiter of the title. Poor Chaloner, suffice it to say, never knew what hit him.

I should say right up front that this is not a book about physics. Some time back Tom asked me to read some pages from his draft, to make sure the physics was coming out right, but he assured me that physics played a very minor role in the book. That baffled me a bit, because — well, it is Isaac Newton, right? But this is a work of biography and intellectual history, and offers a fascinating “street-level view” of the dawn of the Age of Reason. I can recommend it without hesitation to anyone who likes good stories, which I presume is just about anyone.

The book does begin with some stage-setting about Newton’s scientific work in Cambridge — it is Isaac Newton, right? But it picks up when our protagonist finally wrangles a position in London as Warden of the Mint. Not supposed to be a taxing job; one of the attractions for Newton was that he was going to have plenty of time available for his research. Mostly, at that time, on alchemy and religion — one of the enlightening chapters looks at how Newton actually went about his alchemical work, which is both engrossing and baffling to the modern reader.

History did not cooperate. The 1690’s was a transformative time for the English currency system, including the introduction of paper money, trade imbalances with the Continent, massive debts run up by William III’s wars in France, and an epidemic of counterfeiting and “coin-clipping,” by which people would shave off the edges of silver coins and melt them down to make new ones. In response, the Mint eventually gave in and undertook a comprehensive re-coinage — a program that was on track to become a complete fiasco until Newton stepped in. Remember that he was not simply an abstract theorist (although he was that); Newton was an extraordinarily careful experimenter, and he turned his practical side to the problem of re-coinage, with spectacular results.

But the real fun comes in when Newton takes on Chaloner, one of the most notorious counterfeiters of the day. I don’t want to give away too much, because you really should buy the book. Suffice it to say that where Newton was gifted with an extraordinary intellect and a relentless work ethic, Chaloner was gifted with what we would today call “balls.” No scheme was too audacious to be undertaken, no lie was too grandiose to be told, no collection of co-conspirators was too extensive to be betrayed or turned against each other. Chaloner was a colorful character, whose story would have made entertaining reading no matter what era he was born into. But he made one unforgivable mistake: he attracted the particular ire of Isaac Newton, who turned the full force of his powers to tracking this miscreant down and bringing him to justice. Chaloner’s own gifts notwithstanding, it was not a fair fight.

We tend to look at successful people and imagine that they are defined by their sphere of success. It’s hard for us today to think of Isaac Newton as anything other than a scientist. But he was good at what he did, whether it was piecing together the mysteries of classical mechanics or paying informers to spy on suspected criminals. Gil Grissom would approve — maybe not of all his methods, but certainly of his results.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Words

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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