Henri Poincare: A Scientific Biography

Article excerpt

Henri Poincare: A Scientific Biography. By Jeremy Gray. Princeton University Press. 616pp, Pounds 24.95. ISBN 9780691152714. Published 5 November 2012

The year 2012 marked the centenary of the death of the great Henri Poincare, mathematical genius, professor of physics and popular philosopher. In comparison with other tributes, Jeremy Gray's biography stands out because it is so long, drenched in mathematical and bibliographical detail, and offers several chronologies from diverse disciplinary perspectives. After an initial overview and biographical sketch, each chapter presents Poincare's contributions to particular fields, including but not limited to cosmogony, physics, topology and the theory of functions.

Over time, however, Gray's book may well endure because, paradoxically, it is so short. It is a comprehensive but uncluttered guide to Poincare's extensive oeuvres that is technical, even though it omits technicalities, and deep, even though it raises more questions than it answers. In a sublime fit between form and content, the domain-specific chapters typically start in the early 1880s when Poincare began publishing "in three fields at once", traces the arc of his contributions to a particular field and then, like a planet in a stable orbit, returns again to the "flood from Caen" with which Poincare's prolific career began.

Poincare was not only a brilliant scientist but a talented writer whose popular essays are still in print in many languages. In 1908, after receiving numerous accolades for his scientific and mathematical achievements, he became "an immortal" when elected to the Academie francaise, an honour traditionally bestowed on literary giants, even though in this case, "the achievements of this best-selling author were hard for most writers to convey intelligibly and in a few words". Poincare's style is aphoristic and elliptical. Contemporaries noted, often in frustration, that he could see more than he could say. When mathematicians asked him to fill in gaps, the genius would simply reply, "But that's the way it is". …