Profile - Interview with Tom Levenson - September 2009

Tom LevensonNewton and the Counterfeiter

In early September, WHS conducted an interview with Professor Levenson about his latest book, Newton and the Counterfeiter.

  • What makes Newton the "world's greatest scientist?

This one is simple.  He is the world's greatest scientist because of the reach of his insight, from pure mathematics through so much of physics and more -- he had to invent the fundamental concepts that would permit a modern question to be asked and answered before he could move forward to the discoveries for which he is remembered.  He had to understand inertia before he could incorporate it into his theory of motion.  He had to disentangle a welter of confused notions of gravity before he could resolve the picture of motion under the influence of an inverse square law of attraction into "the system of the world" described in his great book the Principia.  He had to resolve the nature of light and color to arrive at the fundamentals of his optical theory. He had to do so much starting from scratch -- and no other thinker has ever done it over such a wide range of inquiry.  Add to that his articulation of the method and the rhetoric of science.  His first communication to the Royal Society on light and color is often seen as the first modern scientific paper.  His Principia establishes the form of mathematical science that we've followed, more or less, ever since.  He set the notion of the scientific method based on meticulous observation and abstraction from empirical results into mathematical arguments that produce predictions that can be confirmed or falsified.

In other words:  he both discovered an enormous amount, and created a great many of the essential tools with which we still try to discover yet more.  Not a bad life's work.

  • Why did you decide to write Newton and the Counterfeiter?

I first encountered the connection at the heart of Newton and the Counterfeiter when I was working on a very different book in the mid ‘90s.  A long out of print book quoted from one of the few letters between the 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, and 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 who led 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 allowed me a way into what it was like to live through that revolution at street level.  For one, it provided an example of Newton’s mind at work.  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 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 in 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 – 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?

  • What sources did you use?

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 marvellous, 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 from 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.

  • Is there any completely new material in the book?

Other writers have made use of most of the records I found for this book, but no one since the late 1940s and early ‘50s has looked at Newton’s Mint career in any detail, and very few have paid close attention to Chaloner, unsurprisingly, given the rarity of the pamphlets associated with him.  No one has put the two sets of sources together into the complete narrative my book provides, and in that sense, this is a genuinely new account.

  • In your view, what are the most newsworthy points in your book?

There are three points that this book makes that qualify as news, I think.

First, the story it tells is really new.  No one outside of the specialist research community (and not all of that) recognizes that Newton was a civil servant, a Mint bureaucrat, for longer than he was a professor.  Even among those few people, no one at all has come to grips with the fact that in that role, Newton was a genuine player in a lot of official thinking about financial matters.  He wasn’t the ground breaking economic theorist that he was as a physicist – but he still did better than some more famous names, like John Locke, in answering some of the critical questions of the day on devaluation, credit, and global flows of money.

Second, related to the first, this book illuminates how the birth of modern ideas of money took place – and in so doing brings to light episodes that have a striking resonance to our predicament today, with examples of financial engineering, credit crises, the birth of banking and all the rest.  If you want to get a sense of why our modern financial system took the form it has, this story will give you a way to see that process unfolding.

Third, perhaps most important: this book provides a new way of looking at the scientific revolution.  When you see Newton using his brain to track down crooks, and you see those crooks making use of ideas, methods and some of the same craftsmen who sold their wares to the Royal Society, then you can begin to understand that the transformation took place through people living daily lives, and not just through the development of disembodied ideas about the motion of the planets and the mathematics of the infinitesimally small.

  • When writing the book, was there anything that really surprised you about Newton, or about any of the characters you mention?

Newton surprised me by being more likable than his reputation.  He was a misanthropic prude for much of his life, but he was also capable of real friendship, and he had a glorious passion for solving problems.  I’m not sure I would have ever felt comfortable in his presence, but watching him work through difficult questions from math and physics to the history of God on earth…or how best to turn a cauldron full of 700 pounds of silver into the maximum possible number of full-weight shillings with the least possible expenditure of human effort and the King’s resources:  his is a fun mind to watch in action.

Chaloner was a delightful scoundrel.  He loved to live well; he was spendthrift; he was clever as all get out.  He’s someone I would have loved to have a drink with, though I would have agreed to nothing in his presence, and counted change and fingers as I took my leave.

The other character who really struck me as someone I would have wished to have known is John Locke.  His gift for friendship is well documented, as was his capacity for flirtation and his delight in the company of attractive married women.  Here was someone who thought deeply about important matters, took action in defense of his views, and at the same time knew how to take pleasure in life.  Now that’s someone with whom to dine out.

  • Did you enjoy writing about the London of the eighteenth century? Why?

London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is one of those magical place/time juxtapositions – think Paris or Berlin in the ‘20s, New York in the ‘50s or Prague or Moscow in the ‘90s.  It was a dangerous place, no doubt, wracked with disease, crime-ridden, crowded, dirty and stinking.  And yet, it was inventive, obviously in the midst of transformation across all the stops of human experience.  There was the emergence of England and Britain as a global power, with ships trading in every port that Newton cited in his accounts of the tides.  There was the pressure of nearly constant war, mostly with France in the start of a century long conflict with world empire at stake.  There were stock market bubbles and bank crashes, gin mills, intrigue in coffee houses, and an erotic landscape that was the envy or the shame of Europe, depending on where you stood.  One out of three children or thereabouts died before the age of five; deaths exceeded births overall in the city until well into the eighteenth century, and still London grew as immigrants from the countryside, attracted by its terrifying promise, swarmed in year after year. 

From a writer’s point of view, what’s not to like?

  • Do you believe that this period in Newton’s life changed him?

There is no doubt that Newton was changed by his first years in London, his work at the Mint, his success as a man of affairs, a man of the law, someone with whom to be reckoned.  How could it not?  Before Newton came to his post at the Mint in 1696, he was reckoned a man of few friends, unsociable, more comfortable with geometry and the furnances in his alchemical lab than with human exchange.  In London, he dined at the houses of the great, would preside every week over the meetings of the Royal Society on assuming its presidency in 1703, would confer in Whitehall, attend at the law courts, measure the working pace of moneyers stamping out coins to a beat just slightly slower than that of a human heart.  Above all, he was someone taken very seriously indeed, clearly a member of the elite, with real power to help his friends and advance the cause of science as he saw it.  He liked that power, used it – mostly well – and increasingly entered into life as a social being, engaged with a circle of friends and associates.

With the availability of that congenial society, intelligent conversation, and good if plain food and drink – he became over the years in London a man capable of enjoying the company of other men.  If he wasn’t the kind of bon vivant that his friend Samuel Pepys was – well, he was still a very much more relaxed and human sort than the Newton of the first decades in Cambridge, or the Newton of myth.

Related Links

Interview with Chris Lydon on Newton at MIT

Op-ed for the CNN on what Newton's experiences in the stock market tell us about the need for financial regulation now

The Most Beautiful System: The power and danger of Isaac's Newton's faith