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A Miscellany 198
Dark Matter, A Review

by: jt

Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton by Philip Kerr, Crown Publishers, 2002 (also available in paperback)

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Imagine if you will a time when religious extremists are ready to kill and to die for their faith; a time when the legitimacy of the Head of State has been questioned for most of his time in office; a time when due in part to an increasingly unpopular and expensive war and to questionable banking practices, there has been a loss of faith in the economy; a time when a non-believer was disqualified for public office solely due to disbelief. a time when torture is authorized by the highest authorities to obtain information and confessions.

In these more civilized times of course, we would consider all that to be an almost unimaginable state of affairs. But we are talking about England in 1696 as the Nine Years War was winding down, and Sir Isaac Newton (as a patronage appointment for his achievements in science and mathematics) was Warden of the Mint and responsible for the Great Recoinage - a total replacement of the increasingly devalued currency of the time.

Against this backdrop, Philip Kerr has set a historical murder mystery with a series of murders in the Tower of London where the Mint was located. As the murders potentially threaten the recoinage, Newton must solve them, a task to which he applies his great mind using (of course) the scientific method.

The narrator, Christopher Ellis, assistant to Newton at the Mint (in the historical record as well as the novel) leads us at times though the seamier side of London and serves to give life to the story, balancing the analytical Newton, who is somewhat innocent in the ways of the world.

It's a good story for those who like murder mysteries, for those who like historical fiction, and for those who have a mathematical bent (try to solve the coded messages before Newton does). For those who don't want to struggle through a full biography of Newton, this novel gives a good picture of him as a man. But the real reason I recommend it here is that religion is what drives the plot. We see the continuing struggle between the Church of England and Catholicism, between Catholicism and the Huguenots, and also rationalism leading to Arianism, or to deism, or on to disbelief.

It's a good read. And there's a good chance you might find it inexpensively in the remainder bin at your local bookstore, cheaper in hardcover than the paperback. Or look for it on Amazon.