Poincarae's Philosophy: From Conventionalism to Phenomenology

By Elie Zahar | Go to book overview

4
Poincaré's Relativity
Programme

To my knowledge, Edmund Whittaker is the only historian to have attributed the discovery of Special Relativity (STR) exclusively to Lorentz and Poincaré. He does this in a chapter of his History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity, in which Einstein is barely mentioned. Though unjust towards Einstein, Whittaker's positive account of Poincaré's achievement contains much more than a grain of truth (Whittaker 1953, Chapter 2). In what follows I propose to defend a thesis as forthright as Whittaker's, namely the view that Poincaré did discover STR, also that his structural realism and his 'conventionalist' epistemology provided him with essential heuristic guidelines, where, as shown in the previous chapter, the word 'conventionalism' should be regarded as a misnomer. This account in no way tarnishes Einstein's merit: following a path parallel to but independent of Poincaré's, Einstein finally transcended STR by constructing a generally covariant theory of gravitation.

Going back to Poincaré: we shall see that in 1900 he had already given the operational definition of clock-synchronisation which has since been attributed exclusively to Einstein; and that by 1905, he had gone far beyond the theoretical results obtained by all the other Relativists. Long before Minkowski appeared on the scene, Poincaré had determined the structure of the Lorentz-group and founded his Relativity Programme on the notion of Lorentz-covariance in a 4-dimensional manifold. He was the first physicist to have consciously based his heuristics on a symmetry requirement conceived as a condition of form-invariance under a given set of transformations. The latter was used in order to correct a major error in Lorentz's law for the electric density and to find the transformation equations for the electromagnetic field, which is why it seemed appropriate that I should devote a whole section to a general study of the problems posed by symmetry principles. Poincaré furthermore reflected on the parallel between gravity and inertia as well as on the possibility of a dependence of the gravitational attraction on the velocity of a particle. He proposed a Lorentz-covariant

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