Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Genius versus Brilliant

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, crime

In 1698, Isaac Newton, after two years as Warden of the Royal Mint, found his work called into question because of allegations made by…a counterfeiter. Though not quite called up before the dock, he had to defend himself because at least some in Parliament had been swayed by the claims of malfeasance in the Mint made by one William Chaloner. Chaloner had some fame as a betrayer of a Jacobite plot, which gave him a measure of unwarranted credit. It was unknown at the time that he had set up the plot with the intent to betray it and thus gain that very credit. His aim, however, was to obtain an official post in the Mint, the more easily to corrupt the currency. This, on the heels of an effort, led by Newton, that de-corrupted a famously vulnerable monetary system.

Fortunately, Newton was able to fend of this attack and brush off others. He finally had Chaloner brought to justice a year later. But how did Isaac Newton, mathematician extraordinaire, the most famous scientist in England, become first Warden then, after 1700, Master of the Mint? What turned this academic don into a hard-boiled detective, who hired little crooks to catch bigger ones, and did not hesitate to send "clippers and coyners" to their doom on the gallows? A large biography of Isaac Newton that I read years ago hardly provides five paragraphs on this portion of his life.

Thomas Levenson begins Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist with two mini-biographies, one of the young Newton, the other of the young Wm. Chaloner. Each rose to the pinnacle of his chosen profession, the one to riches and honor, the other to temporary riches and then the end of a short rope. We see how the laboratory habits of mind that served Newton so well were equally useful in criminal investigation. Indeed, he seems to have invented the kind of network of informants that is so routinely used by modern police detectives. And we see how another brilliant mind was always and ever turned to criminal pursuits, to playing a deep game that kept him far from the bleeding edge of blame, at the center of his own network of minions.

Criminal detection thrives on information. Even today, many investigations are hampered by the tendency of some enforcement agencies to keep their information close. Sharing is rare. Nobody can "connect the dots". The problem was much keener in the 1680s. Newton, who spent a year and more on the effort to reform British coinage and eliminate clippable coins, had no way at first to know his post was being stalked by a criminal bold enough to attempt to take over the Mint, a criminal who produced gilded pewter/lead slugs that looked better than the real thing. Newton knew none of this for many months. It was only once he had built up his own information network that he could learn who the players were in the great counterfeiting enterprises, and focus upon the most dangerous of them all, William Chaloner.

Chaloner epitomizes the theme of an old popular song: "I fought the law and the law won." By betraying the Jacobite plot he had set up, he won a monetary reward from Parliament. By dint of clever accusations, he persuaded that august body to reward him further for demonstrations of superior coining techniques (in spite of the fact that any Member with the brain of a turtle might have realized he was eminently skilled in counterfeiting). But his attempts to attain access to the Mint failed, because the Warden, Newton, would have none of it, and once he realized that his accuser was his prime target, he relentlessly pursued the evidence he would need to hang him.

It is likely that the criminal didn't realize, until perhaps a day or two before his demise, the quality of mind he'd set himself up against. The very lack of information flow that hampered Newton also hampered Chaloner, so that he thought slow action bespoke a slow mind. He learned instead, one must beware a patient man. Newton, patient? With his scientific peers he could be short, even abrupt, but he had the patience to spend decades upon the equations of gravity. He was equally patient and persistent, treating Chaloner's case as an equation to be solved, and solve it he did.

A fascinating account, which rounds out Newton's character compared to the more standard biographies I have read.

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