Thursday, December 13, 2012

Merry Newtonmas 2012

Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642.  Sworn as a justice of the peace, while Master and Warden of the Mint, Sir Isaac Newton circulated in disguise among criminals to pursue counterfeiters. 

The English crown turned to him to save the Royal Mint. Even when they were not corrupt - which they usually were - the Mint officials were unable to solve the basic problem of creating and maintaining a system of money that worked. A stern Protestant, deeply religious, and moralistic in the extreme, Newton cleared out the criminal element and gave England a reliable monetary system.

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) is intended for a general readership, yet rests on an extraordinary foundation of careful scholarship.  Thomas Levenson teaches science journalism at MIT.  He has been granted several awards for his PBS documentaries. Levenson delivers to print the videographer’s impact of sight and sound.  You walk down the alleys and into the pubs where Isaac Newton investigated crimes against the Mint of which he served as warden and later master.

For William Chaloner, counterfeiting coins was only one craft in a wider enterprise.  In the language of the day, Chaloner called his swindles “funning.” He funned the Mint with counterfeit coins and the Bank of England with fake paper.  When his counterfeit notes were discovered, he turned informant, not only avoiding prosecution and prison, but being granted £200 in reward. 

Whether Newton’s career as a detective and prosecutor is “unknown” is putative.  His work at the British Royal Mint is less often taught.  Biographer Isaiah Berlinksi called the last thirty years of Newton’s life “uninteresting.” Numismatists feel differently; and Levenson acknowledges the works of Sir John Craig who published 50 years ago. Craig’s articles draw on the same sources as Levenson’s book: Newton’s papers, the biography of Chaloner, Chaloner’s own petitions and letters.  It can be no other way.  Facts are immutable. 

However, Levenson is a television writer. He lays out a lively series of establishing shots, and pan-and-zoom vignettes that sketch and detail the events spotlighting the intellectual and emotional development of the man easily nominated as both the greatest scientist and the last sorcerer.  This combination of unflinching pursuit of difficult truths bulwarked by a stellar disregard for other people made Newton the perfect prosecutor.

Clearly Newton’s opposite, the counterfeiter William Chaloner erroneously considered himself Newton’s equal.  A runaway apprentice whose first lawful skill was making nails, Chaloner found in London a quantum mechanical probabilistic cloud of moral relativity whose potentials suited his self-indulgence. 

For the modern legalist, the salient question is the propriety of Chaloner’s trial and conviction.  No London grand jury would issue an indictment.  So, Newton went to Middlesex, a different jurisdiction, like going to Baltimore for a crime committed in Atlanta.  (Newton went jurisdiction shopping on at least one other occasion.) Levenson admits that much of Newton’s evidence would not stand in court today.  Our modern experience with wrongful convictions throws a harsh light on legality of the conviction. 

Supporting the prosecution’s claims, we have only the confessions and accusations that Newton compiled. Yet, those folios are decidedly incomplete, as we know that many were burned.  Levenson leaves the main narrative to establish a historical context for the use of torture in interrogation, a subject of some immediacy to us.  Newton could not resort to such extreme methods, but the actual tactics of Isaac Newton’s interrogations are lost because the documents were burned.


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