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
  • Eugene

    Ok Sean, spill it. How much did Thomas Levenson give you to write such a compelling teaser for his book?

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  • Listo

    Sounds very interesting indeed. I wonder if Tom Levenson will get any offers to sell the research to a movie studio?

  • Nova Terata

    This is one of the main plots of Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World: Volume Three of the Baroque Cycle. Although that was a highly fictional telling.

  • Sili

    Given how much Newton hated Hookes, I’m not surprised to see that that wasn’t a fluke. At least he could have Chaloner hanged.

  • Romeo Vitelli

    Newton was a complex guy all right. Of course, he was still a twit for the way he treated Leibniz.

  • Henry Y.

    At first, I thought the title meant: “Newton, Principal Investigator” :-P. Oh, academia.

  • Wc

    Newton was just lucky he figured out gravity. He was at the right place and time in history. If he was not placed in a situation where he had all the astronomical data available to him, he would have dabbled in achlemy all his life and nobody would remember him now. It took him twenty years to figure out gravity anyway, so it was not as much as genius or hard work as it was persistence.

    And he was wrong about light (so much for his genius and hard work).

  • FUG

    I know, man, that Newton guy. What a Newb-Chode. I would have done it in 10.

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  • Jason A.

    And he was wrong about light (so much for his genius and hard work).

    Easy to say today. I don’t think it’s fair to say some historical scientist, whoever it may be, wasn’t quite so smart because they advocated something we consider obviously wrong today, when we have the advantage of looking back through the lens of all the accumulated knowledge since.

  • Haelfix

    Newton was probably the most singular intellect of all time. He would have been great in any age, whether as a philosopher or as a scientist or as a mathematician.

    He didn’t *just* figure out gravity. He invents calculus and consequently most of all classical physics. And he gets most of the qualitative features of light correctly at least at the scales he was probing experimentally.

  • tm

    I just tried to buy the book for my kindle and it’s not available
    on kindle. why’s that??

  • Fundie

    The best thing about the Chaloner story is the fact that Newton was obviously a strong believer in capital punishment. As are all people capable of doing a simple cost/benefit analysis. Newton was nothing if not rational.

    By the way, Chaloner wasn’t just hanged. It was a *lot* more scary than that.

  • Tom Levenson

    @1 Eugene: I paid Sean nothing — except thanks for a wonderful post. Whether or not I’ll buy him the drink of his choice (with as many repetitions as desired) when next we meet?. The question answers itself…which is to say, thank you Sean for such a wonderful read.

    @13 TM: Amazon has had the PDFs for the Kindle edition for quite a while now. I’ve been on the phone to my publisher and to Amazon regularly (today!) trying to figure out why the edition isn’t up. I’m assured that it will be soon — but I was told that three weeks ago. Feh.

  • Bjørn Østman

    Fundie @14: The best thing about the Chaloner story is the fact that Newton was obviously a strong believer in capital punishment. As are all people capable of doing a simple cost/benefit analysis.

    What baloney! Even if a cost/benefit analysis of the monetary sort really showed that the death penalty is the “rational” choice (which it doesn’t in the U.S., where the cost of execution is, inexplicably, higher than a life-sentence), there are other concerns that a simple analysis like that does not take into account. The risk that the executed was innocent, for example.

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  • Phillip Helbig

    “He also, apparently, died a virgin. Extremes come in many guises.”

    More traditional opinion:

    Do you have any evidence to back up this assertion? Yes, he was unmarried. This was an
    academic tradition stemming from the time when essentially all academics were also
    priests. (I think it was not until late in the 19th century that Oxford dons were allowed
    to marry.) However, I’m pretty sure that Newton just superficially played by the rules
    and didn’t much care about traditional religious mores (he also apparently held some
    heretical views), so “not married” does not mean “died a virgin”. (He might have been
    gay, or bisexual, which he would have needed to keep secret at the time. Händel was
    very probably gay, and lived in much the same world as Newton.) From Richard
    Westfall’s biography I got the impression that Newton, a very rich man, spent a lot of money on various luxury items, including whores. Maybe, in the spirit of Bill Clinton,
    that didn’t count.

  • Spiv

    Nice review Sean; And for anyone just discovering Tom’s books, you should also consider “Einstein in Berlin.” It’s a great read.

  • TimG

    “Just lucky”? How many other people were at the right time in history and yet didn’t manage to “figure out” gravity? Not to mention inventing Calculus (independently of Leibniz), laying the foundation for classical mechanics, and making substantial contributions in optics — despite the fact that you’re giving him a hard time for, what, not discovering the wave-particle duality over 200 years early?)

  • RD

    TimG, right on. I couldn’t say it better. A good indicator of genius is the envy it inspires.

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  • RD

    Sean, in your opening paragraph you mentioned the question of what was common to the best scientists and gave the reply ‘hard work’, which I certainly would agree with. Another attribute that has been mentioned is a sense of playfulness, although I am not sure if that would apply to Newton.

  • Wc

    I was only trying to say that America likes to play up the word ‘genius’ – but is there such a thing?

    Sean rightly points out ‘hard work’ is a major factor in the making of a successful scientist. I say perseverance is a better word to describe what is needed. That and intellectual honesty are really what make a great scientist.

    Most scientific problems are just too hard to be solved in a day. The harder the problem gets the less IQ matters. Also I doubt if it makes a difference if you work from 9a.m -8 p.m or 9a.m – 12p.m everyday. What matters is the ability to start with renewed enthusiasm everyday in the face of repeated disappointment.

    And a good dose of luck helps very much.

    Discovery of calculus and gravity was a hard problem and it took ‘genius’ to solve. ‘Genius’ however is just not the individual alone – the individual is not also the most important component of ‘genius’. It takes a collusion of many factors to produce a ‘genius’ who accomplishes anything extraordinary. I would say these are, in order of importance, being in the right place at the right time, a supporting environment and lastly any individual traits.

    Its not a coincidence that two people separately discovered something as profound as calculus at about the same time in about the same place(Europe).

    People who say ‘He would have been great in any age, whether as a philosopher or as a scientist or as a mathematician’, are just hero-worshipping. How great and famous would he have been if he had been born in Somalia? If he had been born in Europe during the dark ages? Whether or not one wants to believe it, luck plays a great part in determining whether we end up discovering gravity or being the proprietor of an apple-cart.

    Personally I doubt whether Newton would have discovered gravity if his university had not shut down because of the plague and he had not been forced to idle and ruminate at his grandmother’s farm.

    We can stretch ourselves within the limitations of the age, place, time and environment that we grow up and live in but no one can ever escape those limitations. And ‘genius’ far from being something that transcends its environment, is actually a product of it.

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  • James

    “We can stretch ourselves within the limitations of the age, place, time and environment that we grow up and live in but no one can ever escape those limitations. And ‘genius’ far from being something that transcends its environment, is actually a product of it.”

    There must have been a hell of a lot of geniuses around at the time then! It’s a suprise that we single out Newton, given that it was just the time and place that he lived , and there were thousands of other geniuses of equal mertit that we could choose instead.

    If he had been born and lived in Somalia then of course he would have lacked the oportunities that he actually had – but I reckon he’d still have been pretty smart.

  • Neal J. King


    Did you ever talk with Richard Feynman?

    I did, several times, when he was dealing with questions I and others were asking (rather than topics that he was presenting on) – questions that he, in fact, failed to resolve. You could learn more from watching Feynman fail to solve a problem than from most professors’ correct solutions.

    It convinced me that there can be a tremendous difference between someone who is really really excellent in a field and someone who is actually a genius.

    Granted, Feynman spent 50% of his energy setting the scene to portray himself as the smartest guy in the room. But that didn’t change the fact that he was, in fact, the smartest guy in the room.

  • headlocal

    Sean –

    A more discriminating characteristic than hard work (which ALL serious pre-meds exhibit in profusion) may be the possession of a GROWTH or MALLEABLE mindset, as per Carol Dweck (Stanford) and collaborators, opposed to FIXED mindsets. That is, the capacity to entertain, and the curiosity to explore possibilities in the optimistic hope that some may blossom into Arthur Koestler’s “…originality, the opening of new frontiers”, his “…principal mark of genius”.

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  • Jonathan Vos Post

    Several Newton scholar with whom I’ve discussed this suggest that Newton died a virgin because of his occult beliefs. Sexual intercourse would have weakened his abilities to do Alchemy. Yes, he was the greatest scientist who ever lived. And there’s a novel about his anti-counterfeiting career: Dark Matter is sub-titled: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton, by Philip Kerr, Three Rivers Press, 28 October 2003, which I highly recommend. But Science was only part of his life. He was arguably a Top 10 Biblical scholar, for instance, who considered his analysis of the Book of Revelation as important as his Opticks (which has, by 3rd edition, MANY non-optics questions listed), Universal Gravitation, and Fluxions. As an unofficial protege and actual friend and coauthor of feynman, I agree that he worked VERY hard, and brilliantly concealed this, using a party animal cover identity. Feynman was the Isaac Asimov of Physics. Or Isaac Asimov was the Feynman of Biochemistry and Science Fiction.

  • Neal J. King

    Jonathan Vos Post:

    I didn’t think that Asimov was such a great biochemist. In fact, according to one account (, “In 1949 Asimov joined the Boston University School of Medicine, where he was made an associate professor of biochemistry in 1955. Asimov was one of the best lecturers at the university, but after 1958 he taught only from time to time. Research did not interest him much. ‘As far as I know, not a single research paper to which my name was attached ever proved of the slightest importance,’ Asimov said. He devoted himself to writing and focused mostly on non-fiction, publishing such works as THE INTELLIGENT MAN’S GUIDE TO SCIENCE (1960), and books on history and literary topics. Asimov remained an associate professor until 1979, and subsequently held the title of professor.”

    I don’t know how you can compare accomplishments in Physics and in Science Fiction; although if one were to try, I think you could make an argument that Asimov was overly prolific, perhaps by a factor of 2; something that I think few would say about Feynman.

  • Jonathan Vos Post

    Feynman and Asimov were both great men, kind and loving persons, extraordinary teachers, remarkable collaborators, with fantastic sense of humor, and produced immortal work, by unique genius and nearly superhuman diligence. Asimov admitted that the field of Biochemistry moved faster than he could, in research, keep up. He did, however, ask me to cite his PhD dissertation on Enzymology, hitherto uncited, as he was sorry that it was already obsolete, yet marked the end of a path on which he did not continue. If his 500+ books were too many, I ask in return what Mozart asked in the film “Amadeus”:

    Emperor Joseph II: My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

    Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

  • coolstar

    Once one reads how Chaloner absolutely begged Newton to spare his life, it’s hard to have much sympathy for Newton the individual. And Newton had many more coiners similarly executed in barbaric fashion. And please, no excuses about “a man of his times” etc. etc. and how coining was High Treason. Doesn’t change my opinion one bit.
    To my knowledge, Chaloner had never killed anyone and couldn’t possibly have deserved the fate Newton condemned him to. Dying a virgin (if he truly did) is the least of what Newton deserved. Newton certainly possessed one of the greatest minds we know about, but that doesn’t change the fact he was a whacko (to use the technical term) and apparently a sadistic one at that.

  • Neal J. King

    Jonathan Vos Post:

    I read Asimov decades ago. But I recall concluding that quite a few seemed forgettable; indeed, I have forgotten them.

    Quoting Mozart to me cuts no ice: I’m not a fan. I was one of the people who cheered a few years ago when the summer “Mostly Mozart” series in the SFBA didn’t include a Mozart piece. Had you quoted Bach…

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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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