Issac Newton turns an investigator and sand turns into a liquid

Sean at Cosmic Variance strongly recommends Thomas Levonson’s book Newton and the counterfeiter:

The 1690’s was a transformative time for the English currency system, including the introduction of paper money, trade imbalances with the Continent, massive debts run up by William III’s wars in France, and an epidemic of counterfeiting and “coin-clipping,” by which people would shave off the edges of silver coins and melt them down to make new ones. In response, the Mint eventually gave in and undertook a comprehensive re-coinage — a program that was on track to become a complete fiasco until Newton stepped in. Remember that he was not simply an abstract theorist (although he was that); Newton was an extraordinarily careful experimenter, and he turned his practical side to the problem of re-coinage, with spectacular results.

But the real fun comes in when Newton takes on Chaloner, one of the most notorious counterfeiters of the day. I don’t want to give away too much, because you really should buy the book. Suffice it to say that where Newton was gifted with an extraordinary intellect and a relentless work ethic, Chaloner was gifted with what we would today call “balls.” No scheme was too audacious to be undertaken, no lie was too grandiose to be told, no collection of co-conspirators was too extensive to be betrayed or turned against each other. Chaloner was a colorful character, whose story would have made entertaining reading no matter what era he was born into. But he made one unforgivable mistake: he attracted the particular ire of Isaac Newton, who turned the full force of his powers to tracking this miscreant down and bringing him to justice. Chaloner’s own gifts notwithstanding, it was not a fair fight.

We tend to look at successful people and imagine that they are defined by their sphere of success. It’s hard for us today to think of Isaac Newton as anything other than a scientist. But he was good at what he did, whether it was piecing together the mysteries of classical mechanics or paying informers to spy on suspected criminals. Gil Grissom would approve — maybe not of all his methods, but certainly of his results.

In Cosmic Variance again, Mark writes about some cool properties of sand — like their turning into droplets while falling for example — with videos.

Have fun!


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