When I was studying for my Ph.D., a fellow grad student and I asked our advisor if he could think of one single characteristic that was common to all of the best scientists he knew. Without too much hesitation, he answered: “Hard work.” That certainly wasn’t the answer we wanted to hear — you mean there isn’t some secret recipe to being brilliant? And of course hard work is not nearly enough to elevate you to the ranks of the world’s great scientists. But now that I have marinated for some time in the juices of experience myself, I see the truth of what he was getting at; there are a lot of smart people out there, so it makes sense that what elevates a few of them above their peers is an extraordinary focus on their work and a great amount of simple effort.
So it should come as no surprise that Isaac Newton, the greatest physicist of all time, was a relentless worker. In his days at Cambridge, when he focused on the workings of the natural world, he would spend as little time as possible on anything that drew him away from the researches in his rooms. Over the couple of years he was writing the Principia Mathematica, he took things to extremes, going for extended periods without food or sleep. (He also, apparently, died a virgin. Extremes come in many guises.)
Most contemporary physicists have heard that Newton eventually left Cambridge and more or less turned his back on scientific research, to take up activities in later life that we associate with varying degrees of disreputability: alchemy, religious studies, taking a bureaucratic position at the Royal Mint, using the Royal Society to attack his scientific rivals. Lots of us shrug and agree that many older scientists do all sorts of crazy things, and don’t wonder too much about the details.
Happily, Tom Levenson (of The Inverse Square, and one of our honored guest bloggers) has provided us with a fascinating peek into a telling episode in Newton’s later life — his career as a criminal investigator. Not really “P.I.”, as Newton was acting in his capacity as a government official, the Warden of the Mint. The story is closer to something from Law and Order or CSI — remarkably close, in fact. In Newton and the Counterfeiter, Levenson tells the tale of how Newton took up what should have been a cushy sinecure, and ended up devoting his extraordinary Newtonian powers to the pursuit and prosecution of one William Chaloner, the counterfeiter of the title. Poor Chaloner, suffice it to say, never knew what hit him.
It has the makings of an interesting movie. Who’d play Newton, I wonder? And how could they have a love interest if he died a virgin? I guess Hollywood could not make it (not enough CGI or bombs blowing up) but perhaps a nice independent one would work.
My oddball casting would be Brad Pitt. He could do it.
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