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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking about Isaac Newton. Now, of course if you ask most people what they know about Isaac Newton, they're probably going to say something involving physics, maybe his three laws of motion they learned in his physics class, in their physics class, his invention of calculus, his insights about how white light can be broken up into colors.

He is credited with being one of the world's greatest scientists and basing his work on careful observation, experimentation, calculation, but most people probably don't know of another part of Newton's career, a wide part, 30 years of his career, as the warden of the Royal Mint.

Yes, he was in charge of all those coins of the realm, and in that role of his job he was chasing and prosecuting counterfeiters and other crimes against England's money, and he also played a very pivotal role in creating the beginnings of our modern currency and banking systems.

If you didn't know about that, well, we're going to talk about it. I didn't know anything about that, and Tom Levenson, our guest, didn't know about it either until he discovered almost by accident.

Tom is director of the graduate program in science writing at MIT, and he's the author of several books, the most recent one being this: "Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist." He joins us from WBUR in Boston. Welcome back, Tom.

Professor TOM LEVENSON (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Thanks so much. It's great to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: How did you stumble across all of this?

Prof. LEVENSON: Well, I was working on a completely different project years ago, really in the '90s, and Newton played a very tangential role in it, and I was reading some biographies, and in a rather older biography that isn't much used anymore, I stumbled across an excerpt from a letter from a condemned man, a guy in jail about to be executed, begging Isaac Newton for his life. Oh pity me, pity me. I'm about to be murdered if you do not save me. Oh, please save me, Isaac Newton. And you know, this was just incredible.

You know, with all the bad spelling and you know, just sort of the desperation…

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. LEVENSON: And the letter itself was wonderful, and you know, I mean wonderful in retrospect, not so great for the guy who wrote it. But what struck me is what on Earth - and I was looking into Isaac Newton specifically because of what you were talking - one of the things you were talking about, his work on colors, and I went, what on Earth was a condemned man, a guy sitting in, you know, a horrible jail cell doing writing to the, you know, greatest scientific mind of his age? How did those two possibly come into contact? And that was the thread I pulled over years to find out the story that I'm telling here.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with Thomas Levenson, author of "Newton and the Counterfeiter." And what's startling is that this took up - his work at the mint took up such a large part of his career, did it not, and we've never heard about this.

Prof. LEVENSON: It's true. I mean, one of the things about Isaac Newton. I mean there are some scientists, or some people in general who are so iconic that the thing that they're remembered for becomes all you remember. I mean, Albert Einstein is - you know, he's remembered for his work in a 10-year period when he lived for, you know, 75 years.

Isaac Newton is the man who invented calculus. He invented modern physics. He invented the scientific method as we now know it. That's what people remember. And yet he lived in London, not Cambridge, where he did all that stuff; he lived in London from 1696 to 1727, you know, basically half his adult life.

It really was, you know, all the things he was doing in the big city were as important to him, to the way he lived his life, as his earlier life was.

FLATOW: Well, let's talk about some of those things. He's now got a new job. How does he get his new job with the mint?

Prof. LEVENSON: He got his new job with the mint two ways, for two reasons. One is with the publication of "The Principia," his great book that laid out the three laws of motion and all the rest. He became publicly known as basically the smartest man alive, and he was very celebrated.

He was up in London for a year, and he was brought in - right after the publication, and he was brought to the houses of the great - he met famous people like John Locke and Samuel Pepys and all these kinds of folks. So he was, you know, somebody who was celebrated, and at the same time he had the wit and/or good fortune to pick the right side in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that threw out the last steward, James II, and replaced him with William and Mary.

And so a combination of being somebody who could be noticed as this great man, and who had now political friends who could give him a patronage job, was what eventually earned him what was supposed to be a purely patronage job, something he didn't have to do any work for, as warden of the mint.

FLATOW: So now he's in this job, and he's in charge of the money, right?

Prof. LEVENSON: That's right.

FLATOW: And so he gets involved with a counterfeiter. Tell us how that - and he changes the whole currency system, which I knew nothing about. Get into all of that stuff.

Prof. LEVENSON: Well, there are two things. The warden's job officially is just to, you know, basically take care of the buildings of the mint, which by the way, at that time were in the Tower of London itself, a kind of grim and forbidding location.

You know, you can take care - in his first weeks on the job he was doing things like complaining that carpenters weren't billing the mint correctly and this kind of thing. I mean it was Isaac Newton handling, you know, carpenters' accounts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LEVENSON: Bu it's really there. There are letters you can see complaining about this.

FLATOW: Well, he knew how to add.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LEVENSON: He certainly did, and actually, that was a useful part of his job. Now, one of the duties of the warden was, in fact, he was the only magistrate within the hierarchy of the mint, and he was legally required to prosecute anyone who would suborn the king's currency.

FLATOW: And the currency was coinage in those days.

Prof. LEVENSON: That's right. This was - paper notes had just begun to come in, in a variety of ways, but the fundamental coin of the realm was, in fact, the coin of the realm.

FLATOW: Very well put.

Prof. LEVENSON: And in England - they had a way of coining a phrase back then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: A triple pun. Now keep going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LEVENSON: I'm sorry.

FLATOW: It's all right. It's a rare triple pun, but that's - go ahead.

Prof. LEVENSON: Anyway, in England at that time, the fundamental metal of currency was silver, not gold. Gold currency existed, but the legal tender with which you could pay your taxes, for example, one of the ways you define what's the standard currency of the realm, was silver.

And unfortunately, England had screwed up in a couple of different ways with its currency. It had set its silver currency up with legal weights that were too heavy. There was too much silver in English coins compared to the amount of gold they could buy as gold currency. So you know, a shilling - there was more than a shilling's worth of silver, as it were, in a shilling coin, which meant that, you know, anybody who had a legal, full-weight coin could just melt it down, ship it to Amsterdam or Paris or wherever, and make a profit. It's arbitrage.

FLATOW: So all the money is getting sucked out of England.

Prof. LEVENSON: That's right. And at the same time there was an older currency, there was an older sort of stock of coins that were easily clipped. That is, people could slice bits of silver off and smooth it down and send the coins back into circulation.

So you had this new currency that was too heavy, and you had this old currency that was being debased, that was just being, you know, literally cut or washed away, and the result was that by the mid-1690s there was basically, you know, half or less the legal sort of - you know, the face value of the coins was twice what it was actually worth as silver.

FLATOW: Wow.

Prof. LEVENSON: You know, the currency in circulation was half its legal weight. Ten percent or a little bit more was actually counterfeit, and England was literally, you know, running out of money with which to do daily business. You know, silver was the coins with which you bought your beef and your beer and all that sort of stuff.

FLATOW: So he decides we'd better get off the coin system?

Prof. LEVENSON: No, he actually - he was very interesting because, you know, England as a whole decided it had to something. There were other things going wrong with England's financial system at the time. There was a war they couldn't pay for - does that sound familiar?

FLATOW: Very familiar.

Prof. LEVENSON: There were a whole bunch of attempts to do some financial engineering, inventing, you know, new ways to issue government debt and new kinds of borrowing and all this kind of thing - does that sound familiar?

All this is going on in the mid-1690s, and Newton was sort of brought in into the middle of this. And the first thing that they decided to do was simply call in all the silver and re-melt - you know, melt it down and re-mint it as new, proper, legal coins, and that was happening exactly as Newton arrived at the mint. And that was the job he undertook, and he did it brilliantly. He did it brilliantly because he knew how to calculate, he knew how to do time and motion studies. He actually, you know, measured the…

FLATOW: So he was - yeah, he used all that science he had.

Prof. LEVENSON: Absolutely, and he used his chemistry and alchemy to do things like work out assaying the silver to make sure it was properly pure and all that - I mean, he brought science to the mint, but…

FLATOW: How did he get involved with the counterfeiter?

Prof. LEVENSON: Well, you know, one of the things that happens when you have a bad currency, when bad money drives out good, the famous old saying, is that people, you know, make their own, and this is disastrous, because it just sort of exacerbates the problem. So Newton had the job. You know, it was part of his set duty to do this.

Now, no warden before Newton had paid much attention to this for at least a century. No Newton before warden had spent much time at the mint itself. That was what clerks were for.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. LEVENSON: But Newton was both very conscientious, and there was just - I mean, literally, there was a point in the spring of 1696 where serious people were afraid that England's currency would entirely collapse, and there would be riots in the streets. I mean, people like John Evelyn, the diarist and Royal Society member, and others were writing of, you know, I mean, really dire - this is a very dangerous situation.

So Newton stepped up and even - you know, he did the work at the mint absolutely conscientiously, with devotion and great attention, and he swung right into the job and all that kind of stuff. That was great. But he didn't want to tackle the counterfeiters because in essence he thought he was getting, you know, slandered by counterfeiters who were objecting to his pursuit. He thought this was somehow a job he didn't want to dirty himself with, and the treasury said, too bad, you're it. You know? There's no one else. And so he did.

And what was interesting is, you know, his first couple of attempts, he was still, brilliant as he was, kind of a country bumpkin. I mean, he'd spent, you know, his childhood in a very small town and then his entire, you know, sort of youth and adulthood in Cambridge, which was still a small town, only maybe 5,000 people, and London at 600,000 people was a big change and London's criminal world was a big change.

So first time out I think people, including the anti-hero of my story, William Chaloner, did kind of pull the wool over his eyes. But he got smart fast.

FLATOW: He had to track him down just like a detective story?

Prof. LEVENSON: Absolutely. Remember, one of the things about - this is 1696. They don't have fingerprints.

FLATOW: Yeah. Right.

Prof. LEVENSON: Obviously, there are no photographs. You know, there's no central identification system. People aren't carrying passports or driver - you know, how do you actually - you know, if you want to get John Smith, how do you find John Smith?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. LEVENSON: And the answer is through - and - oh, the other thing is, there are no police forces. I mean, the first modern police force appears in London in the 1820s when Robert Peel, the - you know, the great police reformer, the guy whose - gave his name to the Peelers, a slang for London policemen, invented the first, you know, serious modern police force.

So, you had this whole haphazard system of thief-takers and bounties and agents and, you know, information received and you know, all this kind of - in some ways, really old-fashioned shoe leather policing. You set people out into the neighborhoods where something was happening, you got them to talk to people, you caught minor criminals and you flip them.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. LEVENSON: And Newton had to learn how to do all this and hang with some, you know, people very different from those he was...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. LEVENSON: …encountering at the Royal society.

FLATOW: Talking with Tom Levenson, author of "Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist." Did he go after other guys besides this guy or was this basically his man?

Prof. LEVENSON: Oh, he was - no. He went after everybody. I mean...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. LEVENSON: ...it was his job to - and after awhile it became - I wouldn't say it's his passion, but he became really good at it, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LEVENSON: And he had a bunch of agents, and you can see in his accounts they were doing all kinds of things. Early on, at one point, there's a list of five pounds to pay for a suit for one of his men to converse with a group of counterfeiters. And that caught my eye because, you know, five pounds was a lot of money back then.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Prof. LEVENSON: You know...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. LEVENSON: ...a skilled artisan in London would make 50 pounds. So that's - you know, that's more than a month's wages for a suit. That must have been a really nice suit.

FLATOW: Let's talk a little bit about his - how he helped make this revolution in getting paper money and credit - and totally different, more like the way we do banking today. What was his role in that?

Prof. LEVENSON: Well, Newton was interesting. I mean, he was - even before he got to the Mint, he was asked to sort of give his advice amongst the panel of wise men, as it were, about what England should do about its currency system. And - you know, this was dealing with the fact that the coinage was collapsing.

And the first thing he suggested was, you know, you got to devalue. If silver is overpriced and it's all going out of the country, then cut in on the silver in the coins. It was an absolutely lucid, clear understanding that money is a commodity. It's not a thing in and of itself. There isn't some magical intrinsic value to a coin that has the king's head stamped on it. There's its extrinsic value, to use his term, of the silver.

And, you know, if the two are in conflict, the extrinsic value, the amount of silver is going to win. So that was his start in monetary theory. He was right. John Locke, who was also asked to join in this committee, was wrong. He said, no, no, no. There's an important intrinsic value. You've got to respect that.

And John Locke actually won that argument. So all that recoinage(ph) that Newton managed brilliantly turned out to be useless. Most of the silver currency was gone again within 10 years. And so, they had to look for other expedients throughout that period because, you know, the basic coinage system wasn't working properly.

FLATOW: Right. Talking with Tom Levenson, author of the new book, "Newton and the Counterfeiter" on Science Friday from NPR News.

And so he goes out...

Prof. LEVENSON: He goes out, and you know, people - lots of people are aware of this problem. I mean, it's obvious. And people tried everything. They start issuing new kinds of bonds. They're also not just bonds but lottery tickets. You know, you buy - you lend the government 10 pounds, they'll pay you interest and you have a chance of withdrawing worth 1,000 pounds.

FLATOW: Like Wall Street.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah. Absolutely.

Prof. LEVENSON: And they - the Bank of England issued its first bank notes, you're starting to get bank checks, which are actually new form of getting money in circulation. You know - all these things are coming out now. And they're coming out now in part because government expenses have gone up hugely with the start of what becomes an over 100-year-long world war - begins in 1689 and continues until 1815 when England finally defeats Napoleon.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. LEVENSON: There's a - you know, essentially, with breaks, there's 100-plus-year war between England and France, in which our American Revolution was just one relatively small skirmish. And the cost of waging this war, even at the beginning, was really, really high.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. LEVENSON: So, the government started using credit in a way that it really hadn't done before. And Newton was one of the early defenders of this. He - there were members of parliament is saying, no, credit's terrible. We can't borrow money. You know, you have to live within your means. You have to do all of those sorts of stuff.

And Newton said, no, no, credit is like a strong physique. You know, if you get too much medicine, it can kill you. But used judiciously, it's important. And in fact, it is - paper money is exactly the same as metal money because - and this is his words, I'm paraphrasing but as closely as I can, it is mere opinion that sets value on money. I mean, that's such a modern idea. And Isaac Newton had it in right around 1700.

FLATOW: And it's the weight of his reputation that carried this through?

Prof. LEVENSON: I think, you can - it's easy to exaggerate his importance.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. LEVENSON: He was important. He was a sort of senior middle level bureaucrat in sort of the early - you know, just nearly forming English civil service. Odd to think of Newton as a bureaucrat...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. LEVENSON: ...but he was.

FLATOW: Yeah. But you point out in the book and say, but he was no Adam Smith.

Prof. LEVENSON: That's right. I mean, Adam Smith is the person who really actually was in some senses, an heir to Newton. I mean, Smith...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. LEVENSON: ...I think a lot of people see him as taking on a Newtonian tradition that you look at empirical experience. You measure, you weigh, you calculate, you try to develop a theory that in some systematic way explains what you see and you use the theory to predict new things. That's Newtonian. And that's what Adam Smith tried to do for economics in "The Wealth of Nations."

I think there's a direct line of intellectual connection that connects the two. In fact, I'm thinking about working on that in my next book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LEVENSON: With Adam Smith...

FLATOW: Were they contemporaries?

Prof. LEVENSON: No, no, no. Adam...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. LEVENSON: ..."The Wealth of Nations" is published in 1776…

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. LEVENSON: …kind of an interesting year.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. LEVENSON: They weren't contemporaries, but - and Smith really was a foundational genius in his field as Newton was not just in his own field but with this, you know, impact that had spread across basically all of human knowledge.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. We're talking about Isaac Newton as his role as an investigator with Tom Levenson, author of "Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist," touching upon the revolution that was going on in Europe, changing from the coin of the realm to the paper of the realm.

We're going to take a short break and come back, talk lots more with Tom Levenson, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Also, you can Tweet us: @scifri, get some questions in there. And if you're hanging out in "Second Life," you can send us a message that way. We'll see if we can get some questions to you when we get back from the breaks.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR News.

I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Tom Levenson, author of the new book "Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist."

Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a phone call or two in here. Alex(ph) in Columbus. Hi, Alex.

ALEX (Caller): Oh, hi there. So, I have read that - and your guest mentioned that I think Newton was very interested in alchemy. So I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that. I've also heard that he, like, got severe mercury poisoning from it. So I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

FLATOW: Okay.

Prof. LEVENSON: He was absolutely interested in alchemy, and he continued to be active- very active in some sense. He was the last great and first systematic scientifically, you know, rigorous alchemist/chemist. He started in the late 1660s. He kept going until, really, 1693 with a little bit of interest after he went up to London but not much.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. LEVENSON: People have talked about the possibility of mercury poisoning and it's a possibility, but it's completely inconclusive. I've never been persuaded by the argument because the suggestion - he had a couple of nervous breakdowns at different points including in 1693, right after an intense period of experimentation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. LEVENSON: But, you know, he hadn't - you know, he did an awful lot of very intense work including writing the "Principia" while he was spending six weeks twice a year, you know, pounding the alchemical furnaces. So, I've never found it a very satisfying explanation…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. LEVENSON: …for other mental ailments he had.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Russ(ph) in Minneapolis. Hi, Russ. Russ, are you there? Ooh, that's - I guess we - let me try one more time get a person in -Russ in Minneapolis, are you there?

RUSS (Caller): Yes, I am.

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

RUSS: Neal Stephenson wrote a series of books called "The Baroque Cycle" in which Newton played a major role. I just wanted to mention that anyone interested in this topic, you know, in the Enlightenment, alchemy, of Royal Society, et cetera, may consider giving it a read. I wanted to ask Tom, have you read these books? If so, what did you think of them?

Prof. LEVENSON: There's a little story behind that. I actually met Neal when he came to talk at Harvard University a couple - three years ago now. And I had - I want to do - hear what he was talking to history of science department about his Newton work and I really wanted to hear him.

And we met and we talked. We actually became acquainted, not close but, you know, we exchange emails and so forth occasionally. And I told him at the time that I read the first 75 pages of the first one of the series and then I had to stop because his Newton - his characterization of Newton was so strong and so plausible and had such a clear voice that I didn't want Neal Stephenson's Newton whispering in my ear while I was trying to write my own. So, no, I love his work.

FLATOW: Great start.

Prof. LEVENSON: I read just about everything else he's written. But, you know, I'm planning that part of my summer reading is going to be going back and actually reading the whole "Baroque Cycle"…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. LEVENSON: …because now I'm done with the book and I get to go back and enjoy it.

FLATOW: Well, before you go, tell us how you - the cash of papers that you found so that you could write the book. They still exist. Yeah, tell us how you found that.

Prof. LEVENSON: There's - the Newton mint papers are in the, you know, secure - secured collections of the Public Record Office, which is The National Archives of Great Britain.

But the records of Newton's criminal investigations, actual depositions and investigations he took, documents he collected and so forth, usually if they were depositions or interrogations signed by the witness and countersigned by Newton himself, written down by a clerk, those had been referred to in a couple of the older books.

There's one book from the 1940s that talks about Newton's years at the Mint. That referred to it. But I couldn't find it. The mint records had been moved around since the Second World War, those kinds of stuff. I just couldn't find it.

And finally, I tracked it down - and the Public Record Office wasn't, you know, wasn't sure - finally I tracked it down. It wasn't at Public Record Office, it was in a completely different place than the rest of his mint papers.

And I had this enormous good fortune of having over 400 documents showing Newton's style of questioning, what he was looking for, the pattern of information he built.

He created in those documents kind of a map of criminal London, or at least the currency criminal London. And it was just extraordinary. Over 100 of those documents bored directly on my case, the Chaloner case, so I had this, you know, glorious story presented to me.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And in his own handwriting, things like…

Prof. LEVENSON: Well, the mint documents, yeah, holograph stuff. You know, I could hold Newton - I could tell though when he was getting angry. He did summaries of Chaloner's case, and he actually did two or three drafts of them. And you could see his handwriting sort of get more cramped and pissed off as he was dealing with certain parts of the case. That's great. There's one thing I…

FLATOW: Sure. Sure.

Prof. LEVENSON: …one thing to, you know, we were talking about Newton and paper and it's very, very important that he was part of this first revolution of paper, this, you know, turning money from a thing into an abstraction, which was very much part of how we thought about a lot of things, turning lots of concrete things into abstractions.

But Newton did not get rid of England's coinage. In fact, one of the things he's most remembered for in the history of money is supervising England's transition from a silver standard, which failed because they didn't devalue silver, to the gold standard that lasted until the 20th century. That was under Newton's watch.

Prof. LEVENSON: He did indeed. He earned a genuine fortune, worth millions in today's currency from the wages he got at the Mint.

FLATOW: It's a great story. It's called "Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist," and Tom Levenson spins a great yarn. It's a great book, Tom.

Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

Prof. LEVENSON: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Good luck. We'll wait for the next book as it comes out.

Prof. LEVENSON: Great.

FLATOW: Thanks a lot. Tom Levenson is director of the graduate program in science writing at MIT.

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