Newton and the Counterfeiter: Part one: A review of a volume of popular history

Let us go direct to the crux of the matter, Thom Levenson has written an excellent book. An exciting, stimulating, light to read tale that sucks the reader into the fascinating social, political and financial world of London at the end of the seventeenth century. Nominally a story of the battle of wits between the Warden of the Royal Mint, Isaac Newton better known as the founding father of modern science, and the master counterfeiter William Chaloner this slim volume manages to be so much more. It opens several windows wide into the social, political and economic history of the England of William of Orange. Meticulously and thoroughly researched it wears its learning well, never lecturing the reader but seducing them into wanting to discover more of the complex reasons for the re-coinage of 1696 or the problems involved in producing counterfeit proof coins.

Before delving into the main narrative the author presents two short portraits of the main protagonists and he is to be praised for the clear way that he presents Newton’s obsessions with religion and alchemy and how the two themes were intimately woven into his much better known scientific endeavours. As a historian of science whose speciality is the debunking of the myths of science there is one passage on the so called scientific revolution that so pleased me that I would like to quote it here in full.

We now call this transformation the scientific revolution, and it is often imagined as a series of heroic battles, victories in a war against ignorance led by men whose names resound like those of triumphant generals – Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, the greatest of them all.

But in fact, the shift in understanding that such men led was carried forward through the daily actions of hundreds, then thousands of people who for pleasure, profit, or both set out to use reason and experimentation to order their surroundings.

This is written by a man who has studied the subject of his writings deeply and truly understood what he has studied. I wont reveal any more of the contents of Mr Levenson’s delightful tome but just say that if you are interested in the non scientific side of Isaac Newton or the social history of early modern England or the complexities of legal and illegal manufacture of silver and gold coins or you just like a good intelligent read then buy this book or borrow it from your local library and if they don’t already have it on their shelves tell them to buy a copy.

Part two: “A semi-scholarly review of the same work” will follow shortly.

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5 responses to “Newton and the Counterfeiter: Part one: A review of a volume of popular history

  1. Pingback: Newton and the Counterfeiter: A Review Part 2. « The Renaissance Mathematicus

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