Isaac Newton stamp

Malian postage stamp commemorating the 250th anniversary of Isaac Newton's death.

Book Club: Catching Criminals with Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton invented calculus, deciphered gravity, and authored two immortal scientific treatises. Did he also fight crime?

Sarah Reisert here, reporting back from the latest meeting of the Science History Institute Book Club. Our current selection is Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist, so hold on, everyone—we’re going back to the 1690s!

Most of us are familiar with Isaac Newton, the lone scientific genius. We imagine him as a remarkable thinker in an ivory tower, turning out scientific tours de force, interpreting the mechanics of our universe, and dealing with mere mortals only when absolutely necessary. He invented calculus. He deciphered gravity. He wrote not one but two immortal scientific treatises, his Principia mathematica and Opticks. He … fought crime?

Yes. Yes, he did.

In his book Levenson illuminates a lesser-known chapter in Newton’s life, the three decades he worked at the Royal Mint, first as Warden and later as Master. It was meant to be a throwaway job, a position with a nice salary that required no real work, giving Newton plenty of time to think his deep thoughts. “No Warden had done much real work … for at least a century,” writes Levenson. “And after Newton none would again, until the office was abolished over a century later.” 

Levenson explains, “He read up on the history of the Mint, tracing the records back more than two hundred years. He meticulously worked through decades of account books, annotating them in his own hand. He brought rigor instilled by decades of painstaking laboratory work to bear on every step taken to turn raw metal into legal tender.” He even took over the duties of another Mint throwaway position, that of the Master, and presided over a complete recoinage of England’s silver currency, making the system more efficient. 

But part of the job, one that Newton didn’t expect and wasn’t totally thrilled about executing, was “enforcing the King’s law in and around London for all crimes committed against the currency.” Soon, however, he threw himself into that work as well, tracking down coin clippers and counterfeiters. He would disguise himself and go to taverns to ferret out information. He had a network of informants working for him. He used leverage to turn coconspirators against each other. But his skills were put to the test when he encountered William Chaloner. 

Chaloner was a very successful counterfeiter (most of the time) and was, as book club termed it, full of chutzpah. When times were good, he could afford fine clothes and pass as a gentleman, a useful disguise when he offered his services to the Mint. (He wanted to get his hands on some of the Mint’s secrets.) When times were bad, he’d just turn in his fellow counterfeiters, leaving them to swing from the gallows while he skipped free. (We wondered why anyone would ever work with him given his track record.) But he met his match in Newton, who was determined to get Chaloner once and for all.

Book club members were generally big fans of Newton and the Counterfeiter. Our discussion ranged from thinking about silver and gold as commodities as well as currencies, to the inability of both Newton and Chaloner to quit while they were ahead, to who we’d cast as the leads if the BBC ever produces this story as a miniseries. (There was some passionate vocal support for Tom Hardy as Chaloner.) We also marveled at how different the banking and justice systems of Newton’s time are from our own.

Here are some of our official discussion questions for you to mull over if you’re reading along at home:

  1. Did this book change your perception of Isaac Newton? How?

  2. Prisoners were often tortured for information in Newton’s time. In the book Levenson includes an account of a Chaloner coconspirator being faced with shackling in irons unless Newton intervened. Does this mean that Newton condoned such practices? Historians’ opinions differ. Frank Manuel, Newton’s biographer, says that Newton was a man full of rage and that his involvement in the prosecution of criminals allowed him to release that rage: “He could hurt and kill without doing damage to his puritan conscience. The blood of coiners and clippers nourished him.” But Levenson downplays Newton’s involvement in the torture of prisoners. What do you think?

  3. Levenson makes an argument that because Newton was an alchemist, he took Chaloner’s work personally. “Chaloner’s counterfeiting was, in effect, a blasphemous parody of the alchemist’s dream to multiply gold without limit. … None but Chaloner ever set himself up as a direct rival to Newton’s mastery over metal. Did that trespass matter? Did Newton pursue Chaloner more intensely than he would have absent his own chemical history?” What do you think?

I’m taking chair’s prerogative in assigning our next book—A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg. Doudna is one of the inventors of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, and she is delivering our Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture on Friday, November 16. The event is free, but registration is required.

If you live in the Philadelphia area, why not read the book and then come and hear the author in person? We’ll discuss the book during the reception that follows the lecture. 

If you’re inspired by Newton’s crime-solving skills, then you’ll love what the Othmer Library has planned for Archives Month—an escape-the-room game inspired by Sir Isaac himself! Mysterious disappearances and mind-bending puzzles surround a manuscript rumored to contain Isaac Newton’s recipe for the philosophers’ stone, and this mystery can only be solved with some archival detective work. Test your skills at our Escape the Room event, browse our collections, and chat with our librarians and archivists. You won’t want to miss this exclusive peek at our archives! It’ll be on October 4, 2018, and although the event is free, registration is required. It’s filled up now, but you can save a spot on the waitlist!

Sarah Reisert

is the Institute’s awards program manager.