Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"and god said let newton be and there was light..."

i'm in the middle of reading thomas levenson's newton and the counterfeiter: the unknown detective career of the world's greatest scientist.

i suppose i should have realised more clearly what levenson's bias was going to be by paying slightly more attention to the post-colon title up there: "the world's greatest scientist." levenson is director of the graduate program at mit and a faculty member in their history of science writing program. i discarded it very quickly because it became clear that their priorities were not mine and, honestly, 19th-20th century ireland were going to cut next to no cheese with them, but the program looks really neat. (and a brief search on the mit website looking for more info about levenson reveals that the program no longer exists under the name i remember, so perhaps the focus has changed since the last time i looked at it.)

levenson writes exceptionally well; if he teaches his students to write like this, that program must be putting out some masterful science writers. his research, too, is solid; he states right up front what sources and collections he has relied on, where he feels the holes are, how he has tried (or failed or not bothered) to fill them, and what implications this might have for his argument. i love this kind of 'lay the cards on the table' attitude in history writers from whatever field. i'm much more likely to nod and go along with someone's argument if i know that they know where the gaps are right up front. there are gaps -- there are always gaps. you simply can't cover everything and that's okay. every history text would be about 12 volumes of 3,000 pages each if everyone tried to be comprehensive all the time. and then a further 12 volumes of footnotes and bibliography.

i have a couple of issues with the book, though. one is that levenson is very dismissive of anyone who isn't newton and newton -- and his radically new vision of the world -- is so clearly an end point for him... "there was newton and then everything was good," could be his attitude summed up in a trite little phrase. i hope that he's taking this reductionist attitude because the book is short, it's clearly meant as a pop history, and he doesn't want to get caught up in the details of debates over newtonian physics. but i find it worrying that he dismisses everyone else working in the same field at the time as being lesser than newton and therefore, implicitly, not as interesting or worthy of attention.

the second -- and more worrying from my perspective because i love print history and intellectual history -- is that, when setting up the conflict between newton (warden of the mint in the late 1600s/early 1700s) and william chaloner (professional forger, cheat, and trickster), levenson is talking about the flood of pamphlets that came out in the late 1690s to suggest ways of fixing the monetary problem in england. basically, the country was out of money. there are all sorts of reasons for this; if you want the entertaining fictionalized version of this, i urge to you read neal stephenson's baroque trilogy -- and then, please, come back and explain it to me.

levenson does a great job explaining the fiscal crisis; i nearly understood it this time 'round! and that fault is mine, not his. i find economics bewildering at the best of times. but one of the key issues in all the (very public) debate and argument surrounding the recoinage of english currency and state support for money and so on was the huge number of pamphlets and the like that got put out by almost anyone with an opinion and money to have the printing done. all sorts of people had suggestions about what should go on, including, at one end of the social spectrum, william chaloner and, for comparison's sake, at the other end, john locke.

so that's all fine and good -- but in the middle of talking about chaloner's pamphlet to suggest what he thinks would be a good idea to fix the mint -- which is really the set-up to an elaborate fraud he wants to run -- levenson suddenly refers to chaloner as being 'illiterate.' now, this may have been meant as a snide joke to point out how snobbish newton was; it may have been an editorial slip that didn't get caught in the final trimming process, but it really struck a sour note i had a hard time getting by. there wasn't any reference in the text to chaloner getting someone else to write the pamphlet for him, or anything like that, so i found the sudden reference to him as 'illiterate' baffling.

i wish i didn't have to return the book to the library tomorrow so i could finish it properly and figure out what was going on. i'll get it back out, of course, to finish it -- if for no other reason than the hope of once-and-for-all figuring out what the hell is going on in stephenson's the confusion -- and because, despite my niggling about it, it really is quite good.

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