I can’t help myself the subtitle of Thom Levenson’s new book Newton and the Counterfeiter irritates the hell out of me. Before I explain, this is not a review of Thom’s book; I shall write that when I have finished reading it, I’m about half way through, and I can already say that it’s going to be a very positive one. So why am I so irritated? What is causing the offence? The subtitle reads as follows:
The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist.
So what’s the problem? It might be the expression “the World’s Greatest Scientist” but it isn’t. Over the years I have resigned myself to this particular piece of hyperbole with reference to Newton. It’s a piece of crap, there’s no such thing as the world’s greatest scientist but that’s the way people see Newton so I just accept it. What irritates me is the word ‘unknown’! To explain why, I first need to give a short description of Thom’s book.
It’s the story of the battle of wits between Isaac Newton, in his capacity of Warden of the Mint, and a notorious contemporary coiner called William Chaloner. As Warden of the Mint Newton was responsible for the investigation and prosecution of clippers, coiners, counterfeiters and all other abusers of the coin of the realm that Newton was in charge of producing. In this capacity he had a rather fascinating and drawn out conflict with Chaloner and this is what Thom describes, in wonderful detail, in his book. So what’s my problem?
The word ‘unknown’ suggests that what is being delivered here is new, never before revealed to the reading public, a new discovery made by the author etc. etc. This is however not the case. I for one have known all about Mr Chaloner and his skirmishes with Newton for many years having, like anybody really interested in Newton, read Frank Manuel’s excellent psychogram, A Portrait of Newton, originally published in 1968. Manuel delves fairly deeply into the Newton Chaloner relationship as one of the main section of his book. The relationship also comes up in the, even older and somewhat more specialised, works of Sir John Craig on Newton’s time at the Royal Mint. Now one could argue that these are texts for specialists and therefore relatively unknown. However the standard and widely read biography of Newton is Richard Westfall’s Never at Rest, which devotes five pages to Newton and Chaloner. All of this is of course known to the author who draws particular attention to Manuel’s biography in his bibliographical essay at the back of his book. My irritation could be removed by the simple act of qualifying the offending ‘unknown’, ‘relatively unknown’ or ‘little known’ for example or just removing it completely leaving “The Detective Career etc.
Now one might accuse me of being pedantic, a charge that I wouldn’t necessarily reject but I was taught, as a historian of science, to always try to be as exact as possible when making claims. Is the statement that one is making really supported by the facts available? If not don’t make it. The historical claim made by the subtitle of Thom’s book is simply wrong and that irritates the hell out of me!