Archive for the ‘Newtoniana’ category

For A Good Time On The InterTubes (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

May 6, 2012

Most of you probably know that I published a book (my fourth!) a couple of years ago:  Newton and the Counterfeiter. (Kindle, Nook, Indiebound, Powell’s multiplatform ebook and Powell’s, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Amazon UK, audio version, Your Local Book Store)

As you all also know, two or three years is a lifetime in book  years, so I’ve been doing almost no talking or promotion on that project for a while.

That changes in a few hours, when I’ll spend an hour on Skeptically Speaking with Marie-Claire Shanahan talking Newton, crime, the birth of the modern idea of money, and wherever else the conversation wanders.  The show starts at 8 p.m. EDT, 6 p.m. MDT, and will go up as a podcast next Friday.  Listen here, and or subscribe via iTunes.

It probably isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that it wasn’t the brightest move of even a genuinely clever criminal to try to match wits with my man Izzy. Just sayin….

Image:  William Blake,Isaac Newton1775.


For Good Times in Marietta, Ohio and Ann Arbor Michigan.

March 23, 2010

The Newtonpalooza rolls on.

If tonight (Tuesday, March 23)  you happen to be in the vicinity of Marietta College (in Marietta, Ohio), I’ll be giving the Krause Lecture at 7:30 in the Alma McDonough Auditorium on campus (number 7 on the campus map).  The subject — Isaac Newton, and what his not-so-secret history as a cop tells you about the man and the scientific revolution as it was lived on the spot.

And if you happen to be in the neighborhood of the University of Michigan tomorrow, Wed. 24 March, I’ll be talking to the Physics Colloquium on much the same subject at four p.m in room 340 in West Hall.  (Campus building search utility here.)

Come one, come all.

Image:  John Leech, from: The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett: “Cicero denouncing Cataline” c. 1850

Self Agrandizement Alert, Newton and the Counterfeiter, unexpected praise, (Karl Rove…yes, that Karl Rove edition)

March 20, 2010

I have to admit, I did  not see this coming.  Or rather, I did, but only because Karl Rove…that Karl R., the former senior advisor and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, showed me the notable courtesy of sending me a personal note to tell me how much he liked Newton and the Counterfeiter. (AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically at Amazon’s Kindle store, and in audiobook form at

I’m not going to repeat the nice things Mr. Rove said in his brief note — when in this age so profligate of bytes someone takes the trouble to send a physical object, on which a human hand has inscribes some private words, it seems right to keep those sentiments private.  But obviously, it’s wonderful to get kind thoughts from readers under any circumstances. Writing is such a solitary act, and the connection between writer and reader so abstract, so distant, most of the time, that when someone does take the trouble to let you know that you’ve connected with another mind, it’s just great. (Keep those cards and letters coming, folks!)

And it’s even better when a reader with unquestioned broader influence chooses to do the unexpected kindness of announcing his or her pleasure in a public way.  So of course, my thanks to Mr. Rove for his positive mention of my story of Newton and his pursuit of criminals amidst economic chaos and opportunity on his website.

But we all know that I’m just dodging around the point here.

Karl Rove?  Karl Rove!

Readers of this blog know that there is not much, probably not anything of consequence on which the two of us would agree.

Until now.

You see:, it turns out, we do come together on at least one issue:  we share his expressed hope for good book sales.  See:  bipartisanship is possible!

Image:  Edouard Manet, “The Reader” 1861.

Self Aggrandizement Alert: More cool Newton and the Counterfeiter talk: Chris Lydon/RadioOpenSource edition

September 24, 2009

Old friend and former WGBH-mate Chris Lydon, now the creative intelligence behind one of the web’s really exciting attempts to create global conversation,  Open Source, came by a couple of weeks ago to record an interview with me about that book I might have mentioned around here once or twice — Newton and the Counterfeiter(Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders,John Smith & Son)

Chris is a wonderful interviewer, creative, always looking for the angle to evoke a response the interviewee hadn’t thought of ahead of time, really an intellectual partner in each of his recordings.

His conceit for our conversation was to see what would happen if I tried to follow his imagination and lead Isaac Newton around my MIT.  Along the way we talked about God, alchemy, Newton’s qualities of mind, the terrifying (to some) success of materialist interpretations of mind and much more besides. Hilarity ensued, in other words.

Listen for yourself, if you’ve a mind to do so….it was fun, at least for your not always humble interlocutor.

Image: Ralf Lotys, photographer.  Street art in Frankfurt, 2006.

Friday Isaac Newton Blogging: How nice it is to be wrong, Newton and the South Sea Bubble Edition

August 21, 2009

One of the great pleasures of the writing life is the stuff you learn.  There is the material that you seek out during the research of any project, and then there are the moments of serendipity.

One of these just came my way, in the form of one of the happiest corrections of error I have ever received.

In my writing about Isaac Newton — that book I’ve overmentioned…you know, Newton and the Counterfeiter, (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound and in the UK,, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders, John Smith & Son) — along with a number of pieces for newspapers and websites, I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about Newton’s failed investment in the South Sea Company.  (See this for a quick account of Newton’s encounter with that famous bubble, or check out the epilogue of the book for an expanded telling.)

In talking about the book and Newton’s connections to contemporary financial difficulties with’s Manuela Hoelterhoff, I said this:

[Newton] hated being reminded of any mistake. The only reference that people have found to his South Sea losses is in the comment: “I can calculate the orbit of a comet, but I cannot calculate the madness of the people.”

That was true, as far as I knew, when I said it a couple of weeks ago.  All the usual sources — see especially Richard Westfall’s still-definitive Newton biography, Never at Rest — made reference to one remark someone recalled Newton making:  “I can calculate the orbit of a comet, but I cannot calculate the madness of the people.”  The rest was even remoter hearsay:  his niece’s statement that Newton had lost twenty thousand pounds by buying into the South Sea Company at the height of the bubble, and a report that he could not bear to hear the name of the company mentioned ever after.

I did spend some time tracking down the various memoirs, and I couldn’t add anything to that…so that’s what I wrote in my book and that’s what I told Manuela.

But I’m wrong, I know it, and I’ve seen the proof.

It turns out that there remain — after almost three hundred years — some Newton papers that have not bubbled to the surface.  Every now and then, a few letters emerge and get sold into the archive/collector trade.  Several late letters between Newton and his once-dear friend Nicholas Fatio de Duillier hit the auction block a few years ago.

I heard about the sale, but one of the letters, at least (I don’t know the whole story) was bought by a private collector.  I had talked to one of  the reigning experts on Newton and Fatio about the emergence of some new Fatio material — that would be Cambridge University’s Scott Mandelbrote — but he told me that there was nothing in the material that he could not yet share with me that bore directly on my story of the encounter between Newton and his counterfeiting nemesis, William Chaloner…and this was true.

But I didn’t tell Scott that I would be talking about Newton and the South Sea Bubble — and if I had, I might have had a heads-up on the second and much more robust example of Newton’s disgust at his loss that we now can cite.

The letter in question was written by Newton to Fatio on September 14, 1724.  It’s short — one long paragraph in all, and is mostly concerned with adminstrative matters regarding Fatio’s membership in the Royal Society, and Fatio’s request for Newton’s help in presenting some new work to that body.  It’s marked by the complete absence of warmth or connection — a startling contrast to the urgent affection of letters Newton wrote to his younger friend back in the early 1690s.

But the most striking passage in the letter comes in the first couple of sentences.  Fatio had apparently sought Newton’s advice concerning– or maybe had touted to him — an investment in the “York Building Companies (sic) Fund.”

Newton disclaimed any interest — he had heard that the company in question was in a bad way, for one thing.  And for another:

“I lost very much by the South Sea company wch makes my pocket empty, and my mind averse from dealing in these matters.”

There you have it:  unmistakable documentary proof that I was wrong in my declaration that there was only one reference to Newton’s despair at his loss.

I couldn’t be happier.

I had believed that Newton felt the distress reported in the various indirect accounts previously uncovered.  I wrote my story accordingly — always trying to be clear about the one-remove quality of the reports on which I based that belief.

But now I know it.

I’ve seen it for myself, in Newton’s own hand, over his (to me) familiar signature.  This is one of the small satisfactions of doing history, these sudden moments of connection across time and vast differences in context and experience — that instant when you feel the presence of a human reality intelligible to one’s own.  And it’s nice to know that however wrong I was to say there was just one Newton reference to the South Sea debacle, I was right to let my readers know that Newton winced at the memory of the Bubble year.

One last thing:  I’m very grateful to the letter’s owner, the man who purchased it at that auction a little while back, Mr. William (Bill) Mason.  Mr. Mason, whose name may be familiar to those involved in the kind of high finance that brought our friend Isaac so low, wrote to me after reading my chat at the Bloomberg site, sent me a photograph of the letter, and gave me permission to write about it here.  My thanks — it is just a pleasure to come across something like this, and Mr. Mason swift and unfettered readiness to let me talk about this in public is a real act of generosity.

As I said at the top — I can’t recall a correction that has made me smile so wide.

Image: Hermann Moll: A New & Exact Map of the Coast, Countries and Islands within ye Limits of ye South Sea Company , London 1711

Another Newton and the Counterfeiter note: I like Carl Zimmer’s taste in books/Nature department

July 30, 2009

Nothing is as satisfying as the praise of one’s colleagues — especially the really good ones — which is why Nature’s Summer Books feature in the July 30 issue is so delightful.  There Carl Zimmer has this to say about Newton and the Counterfeiter (AmazonPowells,Barnes and NobleIndiebound):

Imagine Isaac Newton as a policeman, using his brilliant intellect to pursue the most elusive thieves of his day. It sounds like a ridiculous example of historical fiction — except that it actually happened. In Newton and the Counterfeiter, Thomas Levenson recounts how Newton became Warden of the Royal Mint and pursued a master forger, William Chaloner. Levenson’s account of the struggle between these two masterminds is fascinating on its own, but he also uses this historical episode to show how the modern economy took shape in the late 1600s.
The book’s resonance with today’s economic upheavals seems almost too good to be true. Would you believe that Isaac Newton lost much of his fortune in a financial crash? The physicists whose models of financial risk lie in ruins today can take some comfort in Levenson’s stranger-than-fiction tale.

Imagine Isaac Newton as a policeman, using his brilliant intellect to pursue the most elusive thieves of his day. It sounds like a ridiculous example of historical fiction — except that it actually happened. ….  Levenson’s account of the struggle between these two masterminds [Newton and his nemesis, William Chaloner] is fascinating on its own, but he also uses this historical episode to show how the modern economy took shape in the late 1600s.

The book’s resonance with today’s economic upheavals seems almost too good to be true. Would you believe that Isaac Newton lost much of his fortune in a financial crash? The physicists whose models of financial risk lie in ruins today can take some comfort in Levenson’s stranger-than-fiction tale.

It’s always great when a reader takes pleasure — and more — from something you’ve written.  It’s better still when you know the reader is one of the best science writers and journalists working today.  It’s even better when you get to see the company your book keeps — fourteen very sharp people recommending  fourteen works…to produce a list my book is blushing to be part of.

Diary of Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 12.0: Publicity in the post MSM era

July 23, 2009

(Editor’s note:  Go here for the last entry in this diary, and search “diary” in the box at right for the whole shooting match)

The most horrible words I know in publishing … well there’s a lot of competition for horror in the London/1665 plague pit that is contemporary publishing, so perhaps I should say that, among the most dispiriting phrases I’ve heard in my writing career is this:

“Your book is going to sell by word of mouth.”

Translation? We’re not going to do much/we don’t know what to do/we ain’t got the cash or the faith or the tactical cleverness to sell this book actively.  So we hope folks notice somehow…and if it does we’ll do what we can.

(And yes, I know that recently in this blog I gave Ron Fournier grief for his psychic translations of the Sotomayor questioning.  But I’m telling you what I hear when those words are said to me. And its my blog.  Plus I’m right.    So there.)

Now it is a truth universally acknowledged that any single author in possession of insufficient sales/celebrity* must be in want of someone to blame.  And the handiest scapegoats, after the gods, the times and the essential unworthiness of the world to receive mine or anyone else’s pearls of insight and artful prose, are, of course, each author’s publisher.

And so it is with me:  I am convinced that my publisher is not doing all that it could/should do to help Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) reach the audience that would prize the book if only they knew about it.  In particular, I see two choices that went the wrong way that I wish I had paid more attention to at the time.

For one, I think the decision not to pursue as many readings/talks/events around book publication was a mistake, and though we are now trying to rectify that, I see a big missed opportunity here.

The reasoning offered at the time, earnestly and I’m sure sincerely, is that book store events and other talks don’t sell that many books — and its true.  The one event I’ve done so far (several more on the schedule, at last, starting this Saturday — and if you are in middle-western Massachusetts, you could check it out) was a home-town event at Harvard Bookstore.   It was packed, SRO (literally), with an audience of about 90 — double what I was told to expect as the best plausible total.  The talk went well, and the store sold about two dozen books.  That was good.


For a Good Time in Second Life….

July 7, 2009

Go to the Nature Publishing Group Island in Second Life where, at 10 Pacific Time, 1 Eastern Time, I’ll be talking about Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon,PowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound) — where it came from, and at least a few of the high spots on what some of the key ideas might be….

For those wise in the ways of Second Life, I’m going to be spouting off at the Elucian Islands (214, 36, 57) and specifically in the Mt. Olympus Amphitheatre, whose appropriateness as a venue for this particular talk I will reveal in a later post. 😉

It’s my first attempt at anything so virtual, so there might be some unintended comedy as well.  Not promising, mind you, just realistically assessing the probabilities.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 9.1: Voices in my head, or why Neal Stephenson has to stop talking to me.

June 18, 2009

Just a little story here.  Last post I talked about getting blurbs from busy and very accomplished folks.  One of those was Neal Stephenson, author of some of best novels-of-ideas/racing action reads of recent memory.

The connection between his work and Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) is pretty obvious, at least if you are (a) familiar with the three volumes of The Baroque Cycle, Neal’s massive fiction on the roots of both the scientific and economc revolutions of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and/or (b) have gawked at the leaning tower of manuscript that Neal donated to the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle.  (Fun venue tucked in Gehry’s worst building, IMHO.)

Most notable, Neal’s characters include one Isaac Newton, whom we first meet as an awkward, prudish, timorous boy at Trinity College in the 1660s.  I understand that Newton acts throughout the whole multi-stranded epic, but I don’t know.

Why don’t I have at least that one fact down?

As I’ve worked to publicize my book, I have gotten asked more than once some version of these questions — have I read Neal’s telling of the story of science and gold?  Is mine a non-fiction version of the history Neal reimagined?  What did I think of Neal’s Newton?

And my answers are:  no, maybe, and I have no opinion…because though I have read almost everything Neal has put between book covers (I missed The Big U., but I have it on very good authority that I may have dodged a bullet there), I put down Quicksilver after I was about 75 pages in.


Because Neal’s Newton was too loud in my ear.  He was a real character; things happened to him, he felt, responded, changed and spoke.  I could see that Newton in my mind’s eye, and the last thing I wanted — absolutely the worst possible thing for a writer — would be to start hearing Neal’s Newton arguing with mine — and I certainly didn’t want his version colonizing mine.

Even more dangerous — Neal’s books are full of incident. Stuff happens all the time.  These three books centered on precisely the historical moments I was interested in, and for reasons that overlap with mine.  It was hard enough to keep track of my sources anyway.  Did I need the grief of remembering whether it was Enoch Root or John Locke that said something or other?

I did not.

So I didn’t just put vol. 1 down, I got it out of the house, as fast as its little legs could carry it.  I’m reclaiming it from my brother now, and look forward to reading the whole trilogy without peril this summer.

One last note:  I happened to meet Neal when he gave a talk at Harvard a couple of years ago.  He was speaking to the History of Science department there, so the bulk of his talk and reading centered on his rendering of the daily life of the scientific revolution within The Baroque Cycle.  Talking to him afterwards I made my confession that I had had to banish that work to the Boston equivalent of Siberia (Brighton, where my brother lives) — and I did receive my dispensation.

And one more last note:  there is nothing new under the sun.  Some version of everything has been written — and if I or anyone were to worry about that, I, we, would never get anything done.  But still, sometimes, it’s better not to read.

Image:  Frontspiece to Voltaire’s Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton (1738).

What I Said — but from someone who knows what he’s talking about: Isaac Newton and Money Manias edition

June 18, 2009

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I recently published a book (ya’ think? –ed.).  Titled Newton and the Counterfeiter (AmazonPowellsBarnes and Noble,Indiebound), it tells a story from Isaac Newton’s second career as boss of the Royal Mint — how he chased down the notorious currency crook William Chaloner in a battle that ranged across London and took two years.

Through that story I get to look at lots of other stuff — the way the scientific revolution worked itself out at street level, connections between ideas of faith, science, and what with the benefit/arrogance of hindsight we call magic (alchemy), and how England for a variety of reasons undertook a financial revolution in parallel to and in part propelled by the same ideas and people who led the scientific one.

In that context I look at some of the stuff that Chaloner counterfeited — truly weird new bits of paper that still represented enormous value — and I trace the evolution of Newton’s thinking about whether or not money is just a thing — a chunk of gold or silver with a pretty design — or something more abstract, more elusive…a promise.  (See this post from last year for more on that subject.)*

And in telling all this I give my readers a glimpse of a true economic and financial wild-west, one in which there is not only a dearth of anything resembling regulation, but in which the meaning and import and dangers inherent in the newborn tricks of financial engineering eluded even the brightest of thinkers, up to and including the great Isaac Newton — who in fact lost one of his shirts, at least, in the infamous South Sea Bubble.

And there I conclude, gently, by implication, that the reason financial regulation with teeth is an essential part of a modern capitalist economy is that none of us, not even the one man in history best placed to see through the fraudulent math behind bubbles, are immune to the derangement of reason that money manias educe.  (I made the same point in this post , in which I discussed both some of Newton’s ideas about money (again) and his troubles in the summer of 1720.)

All this by way of preamble that while all the above is true and, I believe, a strong argument, I can’t suggest that your humble blogger could hold a candle to lighthouse beacon of economic chops in the person of the man who just said this in an interview with The Atlantic‘s Conor Clarke:

Self regulation never worked as far as macroeconomic events — whether we’re talking about post-Napoleonic War business cycles or the big south sea bubble back in Isaac Newton’s time, up to today’s time. The pendulum just swings back in the other direction.

The speaker there would be none other than Paul Samuelson, Nobel(ish) laureate, for years America’s leading Keynsian (or at least, popularizer of Keynes’ work) and author of the single most influential introductory economics textbook since the satraps of Ur first put stylus to clay.

Maybe if Tom Levenson says it, you can consider the source and ignore it.  But Samuelson?  Might as well try to bargain the ten commandments ten down to six.**

*Or, of course, just buy the damn book. 😉

**Old, old joke:  Moses comes down from the mountain the second time and says, “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.  The good news?  I got Him down to ten.”


“The bad news?…”

“…Adultery stays.”

Rimshot, please

Image:  Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, “Moses smashing the tablets of the law,” 1659.