Henri Poincare: A Scientific Biography

By Cumo, Christopher | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Henri Poincare: A Scientific Biography


Cumo, Christopher, Canadian Journal of History


Henri Poincare: A Scientific Biography, by Jeremy Gray. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2013, xvi, 592 pp. $35.00 US (cloth).

Henri Poincare: A Scientific Biography is a welcome addition to the historiography of science. We have our biographies of political figures, activists, and literati but there is less material on scientists. This book makes a contribution by examining the life of an important scientist. Poincare was of course more than a scientist. He was a mathematician, a philosopher of science, and a popularizer. The latter role is particularly important because every generation needs its public intellectuals who transmit the science of their day into language suitable for the layperson. In this sense Poincare was a public intellectual in the same way that Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker (Norton, 1986) and other works, makes evolutionary biology comprehensible to nonscientists.

Author Jeremy Gray notes that Henri Poincare is the first book-length monograph on this important figure. In this regard Henri Poincare occupies a place of distinction in the literature about Poincare. In essence Gray gives the reader Poincare the thinker, the man who understood that the history of science is a history of failed theories replaced, but perhaps not supplanted, by new ones. This insight appears to square with Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962). Contrary to Aristotle's teachings, Poincare and, later, Ludwig Wittgenstein doubted that humans could directly apprehend reality. This new concept was a leap forward in humanity's understanding of the cosmos. It is easy for the layperson to convince himself or herself that the senses grasp reality, and it took a scientist and popularizer of the eminence of Poincare to convince people otherwise.

Gray rates Poincare as a mathematician above all else and asserts that Poincare's major contributions were to this branch of knowledge. One perhaps hears the echo of Plato--in several of his dialogues--urging that one should immerse oneself in mathematics. Within the discipline of mathematics, Gray argues that Poincare's chief contribution was the formulation of algebraic topology. Also significant were his studies of algebraic geometry, the theory of transformation groups, and number theory. Yet much of his professional life revolved around physics and astronomy, where his work in electricity and magnetism owed much to his absorption of the physics of James Clerk Maxwell.

Provocative is Gray's mention of World War I, beginning just a few years after Poincare's death. The war killed young scientists and mathematicians, just the sort of people who might have carried forward Poincare's legacy had they lived. War's end saw few scientists and mathematicians eager to champion Poincare's ideas to a new generation. Perhaps the war, if Gray is right, truncated Poincare's legacy for future generations. Even today he is not a household name. When one ponders the nineteenth century, one thinks, at a minimum, of Darwin and Nietzsche, not Poincare. Despite this state of affairs, Gray takes on the task of bringing to the fore Poincare's lasting influences on mathematics and science. …

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