Sunday, August 5, 2012

169: Isaac Newton, Supercop

Audio Link

Before we start, I'd like to thank listener DeeTeeEnn, who posted another nice review on iTunes. Remember, you can have your name immortalized in podcast form as well, if you follow Dee's lead & post a review of your own. Anyway, on to our main topic.

You may have been amused or disgusted by the recent release of a cinematic bomb known as "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter". Kind of ridiculous to take an accomplished historical figure and use him as a prop in an adventure totally unrelated to his accomplishments, isn't it? But perhaps the silliest thing about this idea is that there are plenty of real-life unexpected juxtapositions that could have been mined to create much better, and less repulsive, movies. For example, suppose you saw a marquee with the title "Isaac Newton, Supercop." What would you think? Believe it or not, such a movie might very well be a historically accurate documentary. Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics and co-inventor of calculus, was also a pioneer in many aspects of modern law enforcement, and an amazingly successful detective.

Newton's unexpected detective career began when he was appointed Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696. If you're like me, you may have read about this in the last line of some biographical article on Newton, and assumed this was a symbolic office or some kind of semi-retirement. In the past many in this post had been influential nobles who got there through connections, and didn't care about the job-- but Newton was meticulous in everything he did, and the nation was in a monetary crisis. One estimate was that 20% of the coinage was counterfeit, and low confidence in the value of money caused a resurgence of medieval-style barter. In order to restore trust in the monetary system, a great recoining was planned, where new coins would be issued that had guaranteed value and authenticity. The first thing Newton did was what you might have guessed: he carefully managed the manufacturing processes involved in recoinage, performing some of the first time-motion studies and making the mint more efficient than it had ever been, increasing its output by a factor of 10.

But taking a wider view of the problem, Netwon realized that the new coins would not solve the nation's monetary problems on its own: after they were issued, the state needed to defend their integrity. Reading the details of his job description, he discovered that he was the primary official entrusted with catching counterfeiters. At first he tried to get out of this duty, but once he realized he was stuck with it, he dove into it with the same skill he devoted to his other pursuits. Looking around and studying the situation, he figured out a few things. Creating counterfeit money was a crime that always involved multiple people: it required a location to produce the coins, accomplices to acquire the raw materials and put the coins into circulation afterwards, and complicit neighbors who would not question the noise and smoke. But anyone who you might catch red-handed with a counterfeit coin in the street would be at best a small player: getting to the source of the problem required human intelligence, direct testimony from people involved in coining conspiracies or close to them. So he recruited a network of undercover agents and informers who would hang out among the seedy locales where these criminals might be found, bringing him information about counterfeiting plots as they were being hatched. In some cases Newton himself even frequented such locations to get a feel for the atmosphere in which such conspiracies occurred. Learning from his informers, he carefully waited until he had enough independent evidence, and only then took the criminals into custody. He carefully interrogated them with methods that would generally not be too far out of place in an episode of Law and Order: after questioning them in detail about their crimes and their accomplices, he would record the results in writing and ask the subject to sign and verify that the recorded information was accurate. He conducted over 200 cross-examinations, and managed to convict 28 counterfeiters.

His most famous case was the one of William Chaloner, a sometimes successful counterfeiter who was a little too audacious for his own good. Chaloner had made a profitable career both of creating fake coinage, and of tricking others into counterfeiting plots so he could turn them in to the government and earn a reward. This techique of playing both sides of the fence worked for him for a number of years, his so-called "service to the Crown" saving him on the rare occasions when he was caught commiting crimes. When the recoinage was announced in 1696, he began scheming to use it to his advantage. He made some personal connections and managed to make a presentation to Parliament on the various ways of manufacturing false coins, which he knew well from experience, attempting to make the case that his extensive knowledge made him the perfect candidate to supervise coin production, superior to the current Warden of the Mint. If it had worked, Chaloner would have been able to counterfeit coins right at the source, from within the mint-- no doubt leading to a fortune in illicit profits. This was a massive strategic blunder on his part, though, since it brought him to Newton's attention, and Newton then took a closer look at Chaloner's colorful career. Using his skills in human intelligence, he soon connected the various dots of Chaloner's life, confirming his supicion that the supposed public servant was actually a professional criminal. Soon he was able to neutralize Chaloner's deceptive claims and convict him of his crimes.

While we might argue that these law enforcement activites are pretty trivial in comparison to his mathematical and physical contributions, it would be foolish to underestimate the importance of England's economy and monetary system at this critical time in history. You can learn a lot more about Newton's career at the Mint and his battle with Chaloner in the book "Newton and the Counterfeiter" by Thomas Levenson, which is where I first learned of this story. So next time you take some time from your day to ponder Isaac Newton's accomplishments, which you should really be doing pretty often given all that he did accomplish, don't forget that on top of the physics and the math, you should also think about the law enforcement. And next time you are having lunch with your favorite Hollywod producer, be sure to pitch Isaac Newton as an ideal subject for the next historical action thriller.

And this has been your math mutation for today.