Michal Paszkiewicz

review: Newton and the Counterfeiter

Newton and the Counterfeiter is a biographical account of Isaac Newton focused on the lesser-known period of his life when he ran the Mint. Newton, having become tired of living in Cambridge with his vastly inferior peers, dreamed of making a new life in London. When given the offer of becoming Warden of the Mint, he couldn't refuse such a prestigious and well paid job. He quickly began to shine in his new post as he worked towards dealing with the country's monetary problems. One aspect of his job that he could not predict was that he would have to get involved in fighting crime - as Warden of the Mint, one of his main duties was to hunt down the abundant forgers (or as they called them then - coyners).

William Chaloner was a coyner, a fraud, and a traitor. He lived his whole life inventing schemes that would get him rich fast. His ambition didn't have an end - as he gained experience, he set his aims higher and higher. When he finally decided he would attempt to try and take over the Mint itself, he did not realise whom he was challenging. After embarrassing Newton in public, it was only a matter of time before he would get his comeuppance.

When I received this book as a Christmas gift, it was the first time I had heard that Newton had worked at the Mint. Having a degree in Theoretical Physics and knowing so little about one of my heroes was rather embarrassing! This book was crammed with wonderful knowledge for my beggarly brain. What I didn't like however, was that after reading this book, I found myself disliking Newton. Don't get me wrong, - I still admire his works. What upset me, was that this whole fiasco felt rather pitiful. Much of Newton's work at bringing in Chaloner was fuelled by revenge. Chaloner was no match for Newton and Newton surely knew that. The fact that the people Newton was catching forging money were getting hung, drawn and quartered (although the author notes that they were at least allowed to die in the hanging stage) really grated on me. How could a man who believed himself righteous, a scientist and a man of God, so easily lead people to such gruesome deaths. I don't think I've ever been horrified so much by history's horrible death sentences I have read about before, because I'd never before been so invested in someone who would be bringing such inhumane punishment about. Obviously society was very different back then, but it has raised questions in my mind as to what Newton would have felt when reading Chaloner's final letters. Did he feel victorious? Or would he have felt some guilt at letting his pride take him on a journey that would result in him taking another man's life?

Another thing that bothered me about this book was the amount of speculation in it. For example, the author wrote a whole chapter where he speculated whether Newton was homosexual. If this was true, it would definitely be most fascinating. However, the claim is entirely unfounded - the author himself admits that there is little reason to believe this might have been the case. The whole section of the book felt like the author was trying to stir up controversy to sell his book.

Even with all the aspects of this book that I considered negative, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I have also learnt a lot both about Newton and about this rather chaotic period of England's history. I think a large part of the pleasure I gained from reading this book was due to my love of Moist Von Lipwig in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series - Chaloner is essentially a real life version of that fictional character and this book has left me wondering whether Pratchett knew anything about Chaloner. It is no secret that Pratchett based Ankh-Morpork on London, but I know I am not the only person to directly wonder about a link between this story and Pratchett's work. Either way I think this book is worth reading, although I'm still not entirely sure who I would suggest it to - my friends who are physicists? Historians? Readers of Terry Pratchett? I think they would all enjoy it and I give this book a nifty:

****

published: Thu Mar 02 2017

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Michal Paszkiewicz reads books, solves equations and plays instruments whenever he isn't developing software for Transport For London. All views on this site are the author's views only and do not necessarily represent the views of TfL.